Scheme Dictating Ground Game

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – North Carolina’s collection of highly touted running backs were limited to 15 yards on nine carries in Saturday’s loss to Virginia Tech. As odd as it may sound, Larry Fedora’s offensive scheme was the primary reason.

Through six weeks of the 2014 season, UNC (2-3) ranks 92nd nationally (11th ACC) in rushing offense with 138.6 yards per game.

As poor as those statistics may be, the running backs’ production has been even worse. With quarterback Marquise Williams leading the team in rushing (243 yards, 2 TD), UNC’s five tailbacks have totaled 442 yards on 109 carries this season.

UNC has primarily used three tailbacks against FBS competition – Elijah Hood, Romar Morris and T.J. Logan – and that group has combined for 264 yards on 72 carries (3.7 ypc) in those four contests.

Saturday’s totals marked a low for the running back crew this season, due in large part to Williams’s 94 rushing yards on 19 carries. Those numbers include five sacks.

When asked on Monday why his running backs were not emphasized more against the Hokies, Fedora replied: “Probably the majority of it was scheme.”

It may seem absurd to scheme the past two North Carolina AP high school players of the year out of your offense, but that’s merely a byproduct of Fedora’s offensive design.

It’s a design, by the way, that has rewritten the record books at several schools, including UNC, over the last 15 years.

“It’s all about taking advantage of what they give you,” Fedora said. “Would I love for it to be where our running back was more involved in carrying the football? Yes, I would. But, unfortunately, that’s just not the way it was the other day.”

Fedora’s not one to open his coaching cupboard to the masses, although he has shared his master plan at coaches’ clinics throughout the years.

Here’s an excerpt of a clinic Fedora taught during his time at Southern Miss:

“If the running back gets the ball, there is never going to be more than six defenders in the box… If the defense puts more defenders in the box, we are going to throw the ball. I am not the kind of coach who goes into any game with a determination to run the ball for 200 yards. If the defense loads the box, we will throw every down. I go into a football game and take what the defense gives me.”

What was intriguing about Saturday’s developments was that assistant head coach for offense Seth Littrell chose to focus more on designed quarterback runs than read-option plays.

“When you’re talking about schematics, you’re gaining a number when your quarterback runs the ball,” Fedora said. “So actually in most of those runs, the running back was the lead blocker and did a really nice job on it.”

On the play shown in the following screenshot, Virginia Tech lines up with six defenders in the box.

The basic tenet of the read option is that the quarterback becomes yet another player for the defense to account for, thereby removing one defender from the equation to even out the blocking assignments. Littrell doesn’t call the read option on this particular play, however. He instead calls a variation of the power run, but with the quarterback running the ball instead of the running back.

Right guard Landon Turner pulls and seals off the defensive end, while Morris plays the role of blocking back into the hole opened on the left side of the line. Williams picked up 11 yards on the carry to give UNC a 1st-and-goal from the 7-yard line.

“Just about every time but once when ‘Quise ran the ball, it was big yards,” Fedora said. “And it was because of what they were doing and what they were giving us. Yeah, you’d love to get the tailbacks more involved, but if they’re going to play it that way and let our quarterback run for 10-12 yards a pop, then it’s hard not to take advantage of those things.”

If Saturday was any indication, UNC plans to utilize Williams’s running ability to offset spotty offensive line play as the season progresses. How the Tar Heels’ talented band of running backs factor into that strategy remains to be seen.

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