CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – The first thing Larry Fedora and his coaching staff scouts when preparing for an opponent is personnel. In Georgia’s case, the roster is deep, experienced and talented. Each of the Bulldogs’ past five recruiting classes have ranked top-15 nationally, three of which were top-10 quality.
“They’ve got players,” Fedora said on Monday. “There’s going to be a tailback back there that can go. There’s going to be an offensive line that can go. There’s going to be a quarterback, whoever it is, he can go. Same thing on defense. They’ve got players.”
In a typical game week, UNC’s coaching staff pairs its opponents’ personnel with the scheme to isolate preferred matchups and cover up potential weaknesses that could otherwise be exploited. However, this isn’t a typical game week due to a brand new coaching staff in Athens.
First-year Georgia head coach Kirby Smart directed Alabama’s defense to a top-5 national ranking in total defense in seven of the past eight years. Defensive coordinator Mel Tucker spent seven years as a NFL defensive coordinator before joining Smart in Tuscaloosa for a brief stint in 2015. Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney has a resume of achieving solid results with different personnel groups at previous stops such as Pittsburgh, Arkansas, Tennessee and Purdue.
Taking that breadth of knowledge and condensing it for a season opener has been quite the task for the Tar Heels.
“The toughest thing in this game is not trying to figure out the personnel,” Fedora said. “It’s trying to figure out schemes. That is, by far, the most difficult thing that we’re dealing with…
“If you’re not careful, you start chasing ghosts and you start creating more things for your guys to think about, and then the next thing you know, they’ve got a headful of stuff and they don’t move around very fast and they’re trying to process everything.”
Junior running back Elijah Hood acknowledged there’s been a bit of guesswork involved trying to pick and pull from the Georgia defensive staff’s experience at various levels. One benefit to Fedora’s offensive scheme is its inherent ability to adapt to the defensive looks its given. Stack the box and UNC will pass. Sit back and play a Cover-2, and the Tar Heels will attack with their trademark inside zone run play.
That approach has allowed UNC to excel even within its base offense, which removes complexity from the equation.
“Just keep it a little more simple,” Hood said. “Give us the concepts and the plays that we’re really comfortable with that we can make adjustments to on the fly, so if we get into the game and there’s something that we’re just not ready for at the moment, we can say, ‘well, this is our base scheme, where’s how we can switch it up,’ and guys will be able to go out there and execute.”
The other aspect for the offense is the understanding that surprises will likely come often.
“We’ve just got to be really prepared for anything,” junior quarterback Mitch Trubisky said. “I’ve been watching a lot of Alabama film, obviously, since he’s coming from Alabama, but Kirby Smart is a great coach. He’s been coaching for a long time and he’s probably going to have a lot of tricks up his sleeve, a lot of stuff that he hasn’t shown on film.”
Defensively, the Tar Heels have added various personnel packages to complement the base schemes Gene Chizik relied on heavily last fall, with an emphasis on limiting damage in run defense. Even so, the strategy will be to play fast and light, not thinking and thudding.
“They can come out there and do some things that they’ve never done before, which they’re very capable of,” senior cornerback Des Lawrence said. “That’s what many offenses do week-to-week in the first 15-20 plays. You’re going to get something new that they haven’t put on film, so there’s always an adjustment. That’s why I think the play calls are going to be so small - for the defense, at least – so the coaches know that we know what we’re doing and we can run around and make plays.”
In a top-25 matchup of this magnitude, players will have to make plays, regardless of the schemes.
That’s the best way to say it: less is more,” Fedora said. “So the fewer things we do in this game, the better chance we’ve got, I believe.”