CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – There’s an art form involved with molding a roster of more than 100 players into a team and then manipulating its trajectory in such a way it’s playing its best ball as the season winds down and the postseason approaches.
For Larry Fedora’s program, the team-building process begins in January with a fresh slate. February brings Blue Dawn, a grueling offseason workout construct intent on testing resolve and building trust amongst teammates. Then comes spring ball, summer workouts and training camp, all building toward the regular season.
The hope for all coaches is to play well enough along the way to win games and stay in contention while also continuing to improve each and every week. Simple enough, although it’s a far more difficult task than one might expect.
Plenty of teams offer glimmers of hope on Labor Day weekend before becoming footnotes in October, while others take too long to get rolling. In 2011, UNC started 5-1 before dropping five of its last seven. In 2013, the Tar Heels started 1-5 before winning six of its last seven.
The Tar Heels started the 2016 campaign with a loss to Georgia, due in part to an aggressive offensive gameplan that may have required too much from a quarterback making his first career start, and then relied on that quarterback to rally the team to dramatic come-from-behind victories over Pittsburgh and Florida State.
Following the asterisk of a game against Virginia Tech, Gene Chizik’s defense found its footing, carrying the Tar Heels to a tough win in South Florida. It was then the trajectory stabilized in a positive direction. UNC turned in a workmanlike 35-14 road win at Virginia two weeks ago, and then built off that performance with a dominant 48-20 dismissal of ACC Coastal Division challenger Georgia Tech.
UNC’s ground game awoke to complement Mitch Trubisky, resulting in the offense churning out 9.1 yards per play and 636 total yards of offense, the seventh-highest total in school history. After acclimating to Georgia Tech’s triple-option and making some key halftime adjustments, the defense held the Yellow Jackets to three points after halftime and knocked quarterback Justin Thomas out of the game.
Special teams made its contributions as well. Nick Weiler kicked his third field goal of 50 yards or more this season (tying a single-season school record) and the Tar Heels blocked a field goal for the third time in five games.
“Really a complete game for us,” Fedora said in opening his postgame press conference. “I thought our special teams played well, I thought our defense played really well. It gave us four extra possessions with the blocked field goal, two turnovers, and then stuffing them on a fourth-down. That was huge; it was things we talked about all week. Offensively, we ran the ball really, really efficient and Mitch threw the ball well as always.”
With three weeks remaining in the regular season and the Tar Heels still in contention for the ACC Championship Game, it’s tempting to write that Fedora’s bunch is peaking in this process that started 10 long months ago.
“Just for us to be playing our best football the second week of November, that’s a tribute to our coaching staff because they’ve done a great job of bringing those guys along,” Fedora said.
That being said, his Tar Heels dismissed questions suggesting they have reached their potential.
“I think we’re getting better each week,” Trubisky said. “I wouldn’t use the work peak. I think we’re still hungry, which is good to see.”
Middle linebacker Andre Smith was even hesitant to call this win UNC’s most complete game, citing Georgia Tech’s 518 total yards of offense.
“I think we’ve still got some more to go,” Smith said. “Hopefully we’re going to keep on the incline, keep getting better, keep gaining and maintaining. I think the sky’s the limit. I don’t think we’re peaking. I don’t think this is all we have. I think we have more, especially as a defense.”
There is an element of motivation fueling UNC’s play of late, according to defensive tackle Naz Jones. By losing to Virginia Tech, the Tar Heels not only need help from either Georgia Tech or Virginia in the weeks to come, but they also have to avoid any letdowns. Otherwise, whatever potential outside help is provided will be for naught.
“We don’t have any room for error,” Jones said. “One mistake and our season can be over, or one of our goals can be crossed off our list.”
That a Tar Heel can make those comments in November speaks to the growth of the program under Fedora's direction.
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