CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – No. 10 North Carolina’s explosive offense ranks outside of the top-100 nationally in only one statistic of note: total plays run.
Larry Fedora’s HUNH offense is designed to tax opposing defenses with a multi-tempo approach, although the tempo of choice has long been top speed.
“We want to average 85 snaps a game,” Fedora said during a 2013 coaching clinic in Charlotte, N.C. “That’s what we’re shooting for. Probably, at our level, I would say somewhere between 70-75 is the norm.”
Assistant head coach for offense Seth Littrell, who has been on Fedora’s staff for two years, shared that up-tempo philosophy prior to his arrival in Chapel Hill. He told the Big Ten Network during his stint as Indiana’s offensive coordinator in 2013 that he wanted between 90-100 snaps per game, saying, “You don’t really like to go below 80 if you can help it.”
UNC came close to that 80-play threshold in 2014, averaging 77.3 snaps per game and ranking ninth in total plays run (1,005) among teams playing 13 or fewer games. In fact, six of Fedora’s first seven offenses as a head coach averaged 72.5 plays or more per game.
His 2015 offense, the engine behind UNC’s current 11-1 record, has taken a different approach, gearing down substantially. Through 12 games, the Tar Heels have snapped the ball 797 times, good for 101st nationally. That’s 66.4 snaps per game, nearly 11 fewer than UNC ran in 2014.
Fedora dismissed questions about a change to his up-tempo preferences earlier in the season, but finally acknowledged a shift in approach this week, returning to the roots of this offense, one based in stressing opposing defenses with multiple tempos.
“We’d gotten away from that, and everything was fast,” Fedora said. “So in going back and looking, in my opinion, we started sacrificing execution for speed. And going into this year, I didn’t want that to happen. I wanted us to execute, still be able to go fast when we wanted to, but also be able to slow it down when we needed to and execute.”
The execution component is apparent in comparing the 2014-15 stats. Despite leading the ACC in total plays run last season, UNC ranked seventh in the league and 66th nationally in yards per play (5.56), which is the lowest yards-per-play average during Fedora’s head coaching career.
In 2015, UNC ranks second nationally in yards per play (7.46), trailing Baylor by one one-hundredth of a yard. If that mark holds, it will be the eighth-best yards-per-play average nationally over the past five seasons.
“My goal has never been to go as fast as we can without the execution,” Littrell said. “That’s not what it’s about to me. It’s always about execution. This year, the run game is working a little bit better than it has in the past. We’ve been able to run the football effectively. We’ve been extremely explosive in games this year, so we haven’t had as many plays.”
UNC defines explosive plays as passes that gain at least 16 yards and rushes that gain at least 12 yards. Littrell’s goal is to hit on at least eight explosive plays per game, which his offense has done every week this season.
The Tar Heels’ three primary ball carriers – quarterback Marquise Williams and running backs Elijah Hood and T.J. Logan – all averaging at least 6.2 yards per rush. Three wide receivers – Mack Hollins (25.8 ypc), Bug Howard (17.4 ypc) and Austin Proehl (18.8 ypc) – are averaging an explosive play every time they catch the ball.
“I’d say we’re executing pretty good, and whatever tempos we’re using are pretty effective,” Fedora said, adding that improved defense and big leads help reduce the play count as well.