Offseason Fix: Offensive Inconsistency

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – While North Carolina’s record-setting defense earned the bulk of the football program’s 2014 headlines, Larry Fedora’s HUNH offense often rotated between thriving and stalling out.

At first glance, UNC’s offensive statistics were solid last fall. The Tar Heels ranked fifth in the ACC in total offense (429.8 ypg; 45th nationally) and third in the league in scoring offense (33.2 ppg; 36th nationally).

A closer look, however, reveals that UNC ranked seventh in yards per play (5.56) and eighth in points per play (.430) in the ACC. Tempo accounts for the statistical disparity as the Tar Heels were the lone ACC team to run over 1,000 plays in 2014 (1,005).

UNC’s yards per play average was its lowest since 2009 and Fedora’s lowest in seven years as a head coach.

“I felt like we were inconsistent throughout the season,” assistant head coach for offense Seth Littrell said prior to UNC’s Quick Lane Bowl loss to Rutgers. “We had some really good weeks and then some weeks that weren’t good at all… We were definitely too inconsistent this season to be a really good offense.”

Littrell highlighted the Georgia Tech and Duke wins as games in which UNC’s offense was really good (combined 93 points and 1,171 yards) and the Miami and N.C. State losses as games in which the offense was not good at all (combined 27 points and 465 yards).

After season-opening wins over Liberty and San Diego State, losses to East Carolina, Clemson and Virginia Tech were followed with unflattering player commentary. Guard Landon Turner talked of breakdowns on every play and the need for players to buy in after the Virginia Tech loss, while T.J. Thorpe discussed plays in which wide receivers were blocking instead of running routes after the Clemson defeat.

The necessary adjustments and maturation appeared to take hold midway through October. UNC’s 2014 offense looked the equal of the 2012 record-setting unit in a 50-43 loss at Notre Dame followed by the shootout victory over the Yellow Jackets a week later, although those comparisons were short-lived.

Despite an offensive line that got healthy as the season progressed, UNC’s offense struggled over the second half of the season (the Duke win served as a notable outlier). The Tar Heels trailed 14-0, 9-0, 14-0, 35-0 and 23-0 in five of their final six games and were held scoreless in the first quarter of six of their 13 games on the season.

UNC was forced to rely on quarterback Marquise Williams’s right arm and legs to counter the lack of a traditional rushing attack. The rising senior ranked second in the ACC in total offense (296.6), but needed 621 snaps to accumulate those yardage totals (5th-most nationally).

Williams’s 6.21 yards-per-play average ranked 87th nationally (62nd among quarterbacks).

UNC saved its worst offensive performance for its regular season finale against the Wolfpack (seven points, 207 yards), prompting this postgame remark from Fedora: “Offensively that was as bad as I’ve been around, actually.”

“There’s a number of different things you can say or do, but at the end of the day, we didn’t play well at all,” Littrell said of the N.C. State loss. “We didn’t coach well. We can sit and make excuses or whatever, but the bottom line is we have to play better than we did.”

The Quick Lane Bowl followed a similar trajectory as UNC averaged 4.4 yards per play through the opening 50 minutes of play in falling behind 40-7 to Rutgers before churning out nearly 200 yards of offense and a pair of touchdowns in garbage time.

The good news for the Tar Heels is that youth and inexperience will no longer be talking points in 2015. Barring attrition, UNC will return 10 offensive starters, the most in the ACC, as well as the most starts along the offensive line in the conference.

The Tar Heel offense will also be considered a veteran squad with 214 combined career starts on the roster.

“Usually when you have a young football team there’s going to be some inconsistencies,” Littrell said. “The more experience you have, the better you are and the more you can do. We’ve got to do a good job of developing these guys.

“We’ve got to instill confidence in them and make sure that they know exactly what they’re supposed to do. And that’s coaching. We’ve got to make sure that when they go out there that they feel really comfortable with what’s within our scheme. When they’re confident, they’re going to play at a higher level.”

While matching the production of the 2012 unit (school-record 6.49 ypp) may be a difficult reach, improving upon the 2013-14 offensive outputs should be an attainable goal in 2015.

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