CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – In 1998, Air Force won the WAC Championship with a 12-1 record behind Fisher DeBerry’s triple-option offense and a stout defense that allowed less than 300 yards per game. UNC head coach Larry Fedora served as DeBerry’s wide receivers coach that season, while secondary coach Charlton Warren was a standout defensive back for the Falcons.
Fedora left after two seasons under DeBerry’s tutelage to take the offensive coordinator position at Middle Tennessee State, where he constructed his own scheme that borrowed various elements from DeBerry’s offense.
Warren, on the other hand, essentially never left the football program at Air Force until taking the secondary coach gig at Nebraska in 2014. After fulfilling his service requirements, Warren rejoined DeBerry’s staff in 2005 and remained on the defensive staff in Colorado Springs for nine years.
DeBerry retired followed the 2006 season, but his offense has endured under head coach Troy Calhoun. When Warren reunited with Fedora in Chapel Hill earlier this year, the Tar Heels quickly became a beneficiary of his long tenure coaching against an option offense in practice on a daily basis.
That’s a critical development for a team tasked with playing Coastal Division rival Georgia Tech and Paul Johnson’s triple option offense every season, including Saturday’s ACC opener in Atlanta.
“Interestingly enough, when I was at Air Force we played Coach Johnson several times when he was head coach at Navy,” Warren said after practice on Wednesday. “And then when he went to Georgia Tech, we played against him in a bowl game, and we were fortunate enough to beat him in the Independence Bowl. So I’ve had experience against him while he was at Navy and while he was at Georgia Tech. Being around that offense for 10 years, I do understand, but I’m not playing.”
The difficulty in understanding Johnson’s offense resides in the fact that so few teams actually utilize the scheme in today’s college football landscape.
“The triple option is such a unique offense and there are so many subtleties to it,” linebackers coach John Papuchis said. “Even if you studied it, if you truly didn’t know what they’re teaching, what they’re asking, what they’re reading, it’s hard to figure it out. Having a guy that’s been behind the curtain, behind the scenes and has played against it certainly helps.”
Defensive coordinator Gene Chizik agreed, saying that working against the offense every day allows for a complete understanding of the base principles. Warren acknowledged his experience does provide a stepping stone from a game plan perspective.
“Having familiarity with it for a long, long time and understanding a little bit of the scheme does help in our prep,” Warren said. “But it’s really about getting that message and that comfort level down to our players, who have to go execute it.”
The goal of Johnson’s triple-option attack is to create 1-on-1 opportunities in space – not unlike Fedora’s offensive scheme – so Warren has provided various tips to his defensive backs when breaking down plays to allow for getting plenty of hats to the ball, according to junior cornerback Des Lawrence.
“One of the first things he told us was that he’s played against this offense, he coached it and he played in it,” Lawrence said. “That definitely helps us.”
Despite a wealth of talent at the cornerback spot, Warren said an aggressive, pressing style on the perimeter is likely not beneficial against a triple option offense.
One schematic adjustment that worked during his time at the Air Force against Johnson’s teams was an odd front along the defensive line. UNC typically runs an over front in Chizik’s 4-3 scheme, which aligns to the strongside of the offensive line. An odd front is most common with a 3-4 alignment in which the nose tackle lines up over the center and the ends line up over the tackles, thereby leaving the guards uncovered and creating a mirror effect in which both sides of the front look the same.
Regardless of any potential schematic changes, what Warren’s experience has taught him most is the necessity for assignment football – each player doing his job and winning his 1-on-1 battle - in defending the triple option.