The Evolution of an Offense

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – The first practice of the 2009 football season will arrive in nearly five weeks and with it comes the opportunity for North Carolina's offense to continue to build on the principles that Butch Davis demands. After all, the finished product may still be several years away.

"What you see with our football team in '07 and '08 isn't really what I would like everybody to see in 2012," the third-year UNC head coach told Inside Carolina earlier this summer. "It is an ongoing process of taking what you have at that time and manufacturing it to give you the best chance to win that week and maybe that season. There's growth and evolution. There are high expectations by me and our assistant coaches that we become a better football team in a lot of areas."

The statistics surrounding the '08 offensive edition are less than impressive. The Tar Heels ranked 92nd nationally in total offense (7th ACC) with 321.4 yards per contest, and the ground game (122.6 ypg – 89th nationally, 8th ACC) and passing attack (198.8 ypg – 74th nationally, 5th ACC) were equally to blame.

Take a long look at those numbers and it may be difficult to comprehend how UNC posted an 8-5 record last fall. But dig deeper and the answer presents itself.

North Carolina ranked 43rd nationally – and second in the ACC – in points per game (27.7). The Heels led the conference with a 138.9 pass efficiency rating, which set the table for nine offensive touchdowns of at least 50 yards, as well as 18 touchdown drives consisting of five plays or less.

UNC produced 52 big plays – defined as runs longer than 15 yards and passes longer than 20 yards – last season, and while the ground game accounted for 20 of those plays, there was no doubt that Hakeem Nicks and his receiving cohorts were the primary reason behind those gaudy statistics.

Which was by design, of course – the coaching staff recognized that while inexperience plagued the tailback corps and injuries decimated the fullback and tight end position groups, the wealth of talent out wide was enough to put points and victories on the board.

"We had fast-strike capabilities, so for us to be a plodding, hand-the-ball-off offense would have been total insanity in wasting Hakeem Nicks, Brandon Tate and Brooks Foster," Davis said. "We scored fast and we scored quickly. We took a lot of chances that put points on the board, and at times, it did lead to a lot of three-and-outs in short times of possession that puts the defense back on the field."

Therein lies the problem with a growing offensive unit. No matter how good you are in one specific area, if you don't have a legitimate balanced attack, solid opposition will eventually slow you down.

Oklahoma provides a humbling lesson with regards to being able to sustain drives while taking advantage of big play opportunities. The Sooners averaged 6.93 yards per play in '08, compared to UNC's 5.42 ypp, but the real discrepancy came in total plays – OU ran 79 plays per contest while the Heels managed just 59.

"The thing was that we weren't running enough plays," UNC starting quarterback T.J. Yates said. "We have to stay on the field and we have to run more plays. I don't know what the number was, but the Oklahoma's are running 80-plus plays a game and they're scoring a lot of points. We were scoring a fair amount of points, but we just weren't running the same amount of plays. We've got to stay on the field and keep our defense off the field. We've got to convert 3rd-and-shorts and 2nd-and-longs. We've got to play better situation football."

The national media has already begun downplaying North Carolina's chances this season due to the heavy losses at wide receiver – Nicks, Tate and Foster were all NFL draft picks – but filling in the huge gaps on the offensive line is a more pressing need.

An old football adage suggests that the farther your position is from the ball, the sooner you can make an impact. That's a good sign for young but talented wide receivers such as Dwight Jones, Todd Harrelson, Joshua Adams and Jheranie Boyd that are expected to make some noise this fall.

"We're going to have to rely on a lot of young receivers this year to come in and play," Davis said. "They may not be 60-play-a-game guys. Some might only play 12-15-18-20 plays, but they've got to be productive."

While those receivers were one focal point during spring practice, continuing to develop the running back trio of Shaun Draughn, Ryan Houston and Jamal Womble was another.

"I'm anxiously awaiting the time when we've got two or three really talented running backs that can catch the ball out of the backfield, they can run the ball and there are always fresh bodies in the game," Davis said. "And along the same lines, taking advantage of tight ends and being a more complete offense and not just relying on Hakeem to bail us out, to where our offense is more balanced and more explosive in a variety of areas."

As with most teams across the country, there are plenty of "what-ifs" surrounding this UNC offense. The Heels were hit hard with injuries last fall, and a freak offseason injury to Yates' right thumb has many wondering if the red-shirt junior quarterback is injury-prone or not.

But North Carolina displayed glimpses of a program in '08 that could interchange parts without significant declines in production, and that may be the most promising sign that Davis and offensive coordinator John Shoop are closing in on their desired finished product.

"It just takes a while to get all of the things that you really need to play the way you would like to play," Davis said.


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