CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Football fans, by and large, tend to view third downs in isolation, where success is found in every conversion and disappointment follows every missed opportunity.
UNC head coach Larry Fedora prefers a more technical approach, utilizing statistical analysis to determine what third down conversion rate is satisfactory over the course of a game and season.
During a 2013 coaching clinic in Charlotte, N.C., Fedora detailed how he’s tracked every play every season throughout his coaching career, including the frequency of third down opportunities. What he discovered is that his offenses average 15 third downs a game.
His research found that, on average, his offense encounters three 3rd-and-short plays (1-2 yards), six 3rd-and-mediums (3-7 yards) and six 3rd-and-longs (8+ yards) per game. By converting at a 75 percent clip on 3rd-and-short, 45 percent on 3rd-and-medium and 25 percent on 3rd-and-long, his offense would convert third downs at a 48 percent clip.
Why is a 48 percent third-down conversion rate deemed a success? That mark all but guarantees a top-15 ranking nationally in third down conversions.
In 2014, only 13 FBS programs converted 48 percent (or better) of the time on third downs. UNC ranked 44th nationally with a 42.4 percent conversion rate last fall.
By understanding the percentages needed, Fedora and his coaching staff can share that knowledge with their players and design a call sheet for third down plays. There’s no need to practice 15 plays during the week for 3rd-and-medium when six such opportunities are the norm, according to Fedora.
Through two games, the Tar Heels have converted 62.5 percent of their opportunities on 3rd-and-short (5-8), 41.7 percent on 3rd-and-medium (5-12) and 50 percent on 3rd-and-long (3-6). UNC is currently fourth in the ACC and tied for 21st nationally in third-down conversion percentage.
Fedora’s approach is not unique in the coaching ranks. Offensive line coach Chris Kapilovic told InsideCarolina.com on Tuesday that most every staff he’s been a part of has discussed third-down conversion goals.
“You typically want to be 80 percent on 3rd-and-short, you talk about trying to be 50 percent on 3rd-and-medium, and then 3rd-and-long, really, if you’re above 25 percent, that’s pretty dang good,” Kapilovic said. “We’re a little crazy this year – I think we’re 50 percent on 3rd-and-long, which is unique and it’s still early. It used to be if you finished at 45 percent, you would be top-10 in the country. It’s changed, so now 48 percent or higher is when you’re going to get into that [range].
“If you’re one of the top teams in the country in converting third downs, that’s going to be more points.”
While the coaching staff focuses on the specifics, the players receive a more general version of the third down conversion goals. On Tuesdays throughout the season, Fedora shares his weekly points of emphasis and third-down efficiency is included every week, according to junior wide receiver Mack Hollins. The team’s third-down conversion rate is then discussed on Sundays during film study and corrections for the game played the Saturday prior.
“We probably think about it more than they do,” Kapilovic said. “They understand the goal and talk about it. Their thought process is, what does this defense do in these situations? On 3rd-and-mediums up front, is this a blitz-tendency down? Is this a twist-tendency down? So they’re thinking more about what the other team is going to do on those situations as opposed to us converting it.”
Fedora said during the coaching clinic that he shares the percentages with his players so that they don’t hang their heads after converting a low percentage of 3rd-and-longs during a practice period. The players, however, are more concerned with extending drives than the percentages.
“Obviously, we’d like to not even get to third down, but third down is a big down because if you get it on third down, you’re getting a first down and that takes away momentum from the defense,” Hollins said. “When third down comes around, we just know instinctively that it’s the money down. You know how many yards there are to the sticks and what you have to do to get them.”
For some, the statistical targets are noteworthy, but secondary to the task at hand.
“We expect excellence,” senior wide receiver Quinshad Davis said. “We want to get every third down, so if it’s 3rd-and-long, we still want to get it.”