CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – A year removed from setting 36 offensive school records, Larry Fedora and his Tar Heels intend to challenge those benchmarks in 2016.
Since arriving in Chapel Hill in December 2011, Fedora’s offense has twice obliterated the school record books. John Shoop’s final offense at UNC set a school record in 2011 by averaging 6.29 yards per play. That mark was short-lived as Fedora’s first Tar Heel team averaged 6.49 yards per play, which was outdone last season by nearly a full yard (7.28).
The 17 team records set in 2015 include such achievements as points in a season (570), points per game in a season (40.7) and total yards of offense per game in a season (486.9).
Yet, despite losing record-setting playmakers in quarterback Marquise Williams and wide receiver Quinshad Davis to graduation, there is optimism around the program that the 2016 offense can be just as good, if not better.
“I believe we have the talent to be better than our numbers said we were last year,” Fedora told reporters last week at the ACC Kickoff media event in Charlotte. “Now whether or not we do that, I don’t know.”
Those numbers suggested the Tar Heels were quite good. UNC ranked ninth nationally in scoring offense (40.7) and third down conversion percentage (48.8), 12th in team passing efficiency (159.4) and 18th in total offense (486.9).
UNC returns seven starters on offense, including preseason All-ACC selections Elijah Hood and Ryan Switzer. Hood churned out 1,463 yards and 17 touchdowns on the ground, averaging 6.7 yards per rush, which is good for fourth nationally among running backs with 200+ carries. Switzer (55 catches, 697 yards, 6 TD) tied Davis for the team lead in receptions in 2015, while fellow senior Mack Hollins (30 catches, 745 yards, 8 TD) led the country in yards per catch (24.8).
Equally as important as the skill positions is an experienced offensive line, where position coach and offensive coordinator Chris Kapilovic returns four starters with 122 career starts. Right tackle Jon Heck (38) and left guard Caleb Peterson (37) are on track to break James Hurst’s school record for career starts (49).
The biggest question for UNC offensively is whether or not junior quarterback Mitch Trubisky can live up to the hype in replacing Williams, who set 20 individual season and career records last fall. Trubisky, who has yet to start during his college career, has played in 19 games. He completed 85.1 percent of his passes (40-47) for 555 yards and six touchdowns in 2015.
The comparisons between Trubisky and his predecessor have been a talking point dating back to Bryn Renner’s season-ending shoulder injury in 2013.
“I've been fortunate enough to catch passes from both of them,” Switzer said last week. “Not to diminish anything that Marquise did for our program, but Mitch is a very rare talent. Everything that he brings to the table; he's very composed, he's a very team-first kind of guy. I'm looking forward to seeing his talent displayed this year, especially with the guys that he has around him.”
While Fedora praised Williams’s ability to throw the deep ball, he indicated that Trubisky throws with “more zip on the ball” and is more accurate in the intermediate and short passing game.
What separated Williams from his peers was his ability to not only create something out of nothing in the run game, but also to pound out tough yardage.
“Mitch can run, alright?” Fedora said. “He can run. If those two got into a race, I don’t know who would be the fastest. They can both run. What Marquise was, now, was a big physical runner, which you normally don’t see at quarterback.”
Fedora does not allow his quarterbacks to take hits in practice, so the question remains as to whether or not Trubisky can endure the physical beating that seemed to elevate Williams’s play at times. He likely will not have to run as much, given the talent returning up front and in the backfield.
Even so, Fedora is not removing the designed runs from the playbook that were inserted specifically for Williams. Trubisky’s talent offers the opportunity for a more complex offensive scheme.
“Yeah, we’ll expand with him,” Fedora said. “No doubt.”
The expectations surrounding Trubisky's move into the starting role, paired with UNC’s returning skill and experience, suggest that the offense may avoid taking a significant step back this fall. Taking a step forward is a different matter, given the record-setting exploits of the 2015 squad.
“We can get better,” Kapilovic said earlier this year. “We saw plenty of opportunities where we did not execute as well as we should have. The attention to detail is the thing I think we’re really focusing on getting right all of the time, and not getting sloppy.”
While the Tar Heels proved to be an elite offensive team in 2015, various advanced metrics indicate there is room for improvement. UNC ranked no higher than 13th nationally in Football Outsiders' six offensive S&P+ ratings, which are based around concepts such as efficiency, explosiveness, drive success rate and turnovers.
UNC ranked 102nd nationally in Football Outsiders’ adjusted pace metric, due to running 4.3 fewer plays per game than expected based on run-pass rates. The Tar Heels ranked sixth nationally in 2014 in the same statistical category (4.4 more plays per game than expected).
That differential can be explained by two key points: (1) UNC was much more efficient offensively last season (led the country in yards per play (7.28) in 2015; 66th with 5.56 ypp in 2014); and (2) Fedora slowed down his offense at times to help out his defense (UNC still defended the second-most plays nationally (1,110; 79.3 per game)).
Fedora has said in the past he wants to average 85 offensive snaps per game, yet UNC averaged 66.9 plays per game last season, the lowest of his head coaching career. Provided Gene Chizik’s defense has worked through its growing pains, increasing pace while maintaining or possibly improving efficiency would allow for even better offensive statistics in 2016.
“We're really excited to get the season started because we know the talent and the experience that we have coming back,” Switzer said. “It's not so much that we out-do ourselves or out-do the numbers we put up, but just continue to be more consistent on a drive-to-drive basis and make sure we don't waste all the weapons that we do have.”