CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – For decades following the invention of the forward pass, a quarterback’s primary decision-making responsibility was working through his pass progression to find a route that best exploited a defensive coverage. If the quarterback saw a front or alignment that didn’t match the play call, he was able to audible and select a better-suited play option.
When Larry Fedora worked under Fischer DeBerry at Air Force in the late 1990s, the Falcons’ triple-option offense eliminated the need for an audible because the quarterback had three options for any given play: the dive, the pitch and the keep. Fedora implored DeBerry to add a forward pass to the mix, but his suggestion went unheard until he made it a staple of his offense at Middle Tennessee State in 1999.
Since then Fedora has been on the leading edge of offensive innovation at the college level by removing the impact of an offensive coordinator’s play-calling abilities and placing the onus on his quarterback to make the necessary decisions on the field of play. Audibles serve no purpose in Fedora’s HUNH offense because they are essentially built into most every play that UNC runs.
A run-pass option, known as RPOs in coaching lingo, adds an extra step for the quarterback in his reads, although the simplicity of the process is intended to make his job easier. RPOs are packaged plays that pair runs and passes without the need to notify the other 10 offensive players on the field.
Due to college offensive linemen being allowed to run three yards downfield before being flagged as an ineligible receiver, RPOs allowe linemen and tailbacks to execute a run play while wide receivers run a pass play. It’s up to the quarterback to make pre-snap reads based on defensive keys and coverages to decide whether or not to handoff or pass. In the case of a zone read play, the quarterback reads a particular defensive lineman to decide whether to keep or handoff.
This is the basis for Fedora’s offensive mantra of taking what the defense gives. Six men in the box? UNC is going to run every time. Stack eight in the box? Pass play, likely in the form of a perimeter screen.
Fedora adds another pre-snap check to the mix in the form of front side/back side packaged passing plays, such as pairing a Basic route concept with double slants on the other side. Not only does the quarterback have a RPO decision to make, but he has to then decide which side of the field is in play.
If this sounds complicated, it’s actually created not to be. The pre-snap reads are designed to be a quick “Yes/No” decision before moving to the next read.
Ego is often the biggest offender. Quarterbacks are trained to fight the urge to pick a target before a defense is set and the reads are available.
“Guys that predetermine where they want to go will typically move their eyes out of the right place,” UNC quarterbacks coach Keith Heckendorf said on Wednesday. “They’ve already made up their mind where they’re going without properly ID’ing the coverage.”
Playing quarterback in this offense is about what you see. It’s about gathering information, and that only happens if your eyes are in the right place. Most reads are accomplished pre-snap, although Fedora also instructs his quarterbacks to verify post-snap.
“It can’t be, ‘well, I didn’t throw it just because I didn’t feel like it,’” Fedora said this week. “What’s the defense showing us? If that’s what they’re showing us, then throw it.”
Mitch Trubisky seemed to flirt with perfection in Saturday’s win over James Madison – the junior quarterback completed 24-of-27 passes for 432 yards and three touchdowns – although film review highlighted as many as 10 potential errors in judgment, equally split between pass progression reads and RPO reads.
On 3rd-and-8 on UNC’s opening drive, Trubisky’s read was a five-yard out to Austin Proehl but instead threw to Bug Howard in coverage. The mistake was masked by a pass interference call. Trubisky told reporters earlier this week he should have checked down on the play, acknowledging that UNC got lucky with the P.I. call.
It’s a good example of attempting a flashy play when a lesser option would have worked. There’s a saying in the quarterback room that addresses that temptation: No splash.
“Your splash is going to be at the end of the day,” Heckendorf said. “When you look up at the end of the day, how efficient were we? Saturday would be a good example of being very efficient. Were there some big plays? Yeah. But they weren’t all big plays. A lot of them were just your routine, everyday throws that you’ve got to make to move the chains. When you’re consistently making those plays and those throws, you get more big-play opportunities.”
Incorrect reads on RPOs were mitigated by UNC’s size and talent up front.
“There were a couple of plays where I handed the ball off and I had a better pass option on a perimeter screen and luckily the O-line and the running backs made me right and we were able to make plays,” Trubisky said. “I’m going to have to do better than that against better defenses.”
Heckendorf, however, is less concerned with Trubisky making the right play every time than having confidence in his ability to make the right play. Opposing defenses have long since figured out UNC’s “count the box” approach, and often attempt to balance or disguise their looks to create doubt for the quarterback.
“There’s a lot of looks that are very vague, very 50/50, where you’d be right doing one and you’d be right doing the other,” Heckendorf said. “So for him, it’s being decisive and accurate in whatever decision he does make. That will make it right…
“If you let it become gray, and you become indecisive, no matter what you do, you’ll be wrong. That’s what we want to eliminate.”
Trubisky’s school record for most pass attempts without an interception – currently sitting at 156 – is clear indication of his confidence level and faith in Fedora’s unique offensive system.