Offense 2002 - Tar Heels headed "West"?

Head coach John Bunting wants to institute a West Coast offense at UNC. Is 2002 the year? <i>Inside Carolina's</i> Miller Safrit looks ahead.

Coach Bunting, from the moment he landed in Chapel Hill, has stated his preference for a "Gulf-Coast" style of offense, the New Orleans Saint's version of the West Coast offense developed in the NFL teams in San Diego and San Francisco, and now run by teams such as Green Bay and St. Louis.

In offensive coordinator Gary Tranquill, Coach Bunting hired a man who had coached for over thirty years and could coach any style of offense. Tranquill could move easily from an offensive philosophy of "three yards and a cloud of dust" to the no-huddle four and five-receiver sets becoming a fixture in college football.

North Carolina has not run that offense this season with current offensive coordinator Gary Tranquill. Why? Glad you asked. Our take is that Bunting and staff simply did not have the horses to run it effectively.

Go with what you got

Looking at the talent on this year's North Carolina football team, even prior to the beginning of the season, it was obvious that the strength of UNC rested in the lap of a great defense and a decent offense.

This was most evident in the trenches, where the defensive line was experienced and hugely talented, while the offense line was as green as the Kenan Stadium grass and composed largely of unknowns. There was more inexperience in the backfield and tight end position.

While the Tar Heels had a more-than-adequate wide receiver corps, they did not have effective pass protection, or in Ronald Curry the type of quarterback that excelled in a West Coast offense. They also did not have a running back who was also a great pass receiver out of the backfield, a staple of the West Coast offense.

As a result, Bunting's preferred offensive style went on the shelf this year. The North Carolina offense was much more of a hybrid offense, attempting to get something between the tackles with the run and incorporating a passing attack that varied depending on what quarterback was under center.

Change of direction

Verbal recruiting commitments are starting to come in. Based on those commitments there are some inferences that might be drawn about where the North Carolina football team is headed in the future. One hint: That direction is "West."

North Carolina currently has verbal commitments on four scholarship offers at the wide receiver position. There are signs that suggest the staff is still actively pursuing more players at the same position. There are also four defensive backs positioned to come in once the signing period has come and gone. The emphasis has been speed, speed, and more speed.

Lessons learned

Coach Bunting is, at least in part, a product of the experiences he has had as a professional player and coach. One of the more intense experiences of that career came as a player and assistant coach under Dick Vermiel.

Bunting's mentor and close friend is the current Kansas City head coach and was also was the architect of the current St. Louis Rams' offensive philosophy. Vermeil was also the head man of the Philadelphia Eagles' teams that included Bunting as an All-Pro linebacker.

During Vermeil's first year with the Rams, he liked to run the ball - constantly. Necessity dictated this style of play.

Vermeil inherited a team that included Tony Banks as the quarterback, and a defense that was more talented than the offense. Vermeil knew that in order to play his preferred style of offense he would have to wait until his style of players were available.

He then went after them and got them, including a blockbuster trade for All-Pro running back Marshall Faulk. The offensive philosophy centered on speed, speed, and more speed. Sound familiar?

Eventually, Vermeil orchestrated one of the most prolific offenses in the NFL while directing the St. Louis Rams to the Super Bowl championship. Bunting, like Vermeil, appears to be biding his time to implement his preferred mode of offensive attack.

Are we there yet?

Like anxious kids traveling with Mom and Dad to their favorite theme park, UNC fans want to know, "Are we there yet?," in terms of the offensive style coming in 2002.

The offensive line has made strides in pass protection. The wide receiver corps for 2002 would be more than adequate for the West Coast offense. In Darian Durant, the Tar Heels have a quarterback whose accuracy on short and medium passes is custom-made for the West Coast offense.

Does this mean that in 2002 Coach Bunting will be able to implement his preferred offensive style? Maybe not.

There is not a running back on the UNC roster that excels at catching the ball out of the backfield, at least not one that has displayed that talent on the field. Successful West Coast offenses that lack a good receiver in the backfield are rare. The offense line, though they made tremendous strides over the course of the season, is perhaps still too vulnerable to the blitzes designed to defeat that style of offense.

The guess here is that the Tar Heels, though currently engaged in recruiting the type of players needed for this system, are a couple of years away from being able to fully implement it. Both Tranquill and Bunting are opposed to "pounding a square peg into a round hole," and are going to run schemes on both sides of the ball to fit the personnel available to them.

In the meantime, keep an eye on the recruits being sought after by the Tar Heels. The staff's choices are good indicators of things to come.

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