Opening Up the Playbook

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Fairly or unfairly, UNC offensive coordinator John Shoop has been labeled by many as a conservative play-caller during his stay in Chapel Hill. But with a mixture of talent and experience on the roster, as well as a potential new secret weapon, fans and critics alike are anxiously awaiting this fall.

It seems as though offensive coordinators are constantly under siege. While a defense can claim perfection with a shutout, there are always more opportunities for an offense to score. The next rabid fan that complains about his favorite team scoring too many points will be the first.

Shoop's detractors got a head start on their criticism before the Oakmont, Pa. native's plane ever set down at Raleigh-Durham International Airport nearly three years ago, pointing to his tenure as the Chicago Bears' offensive coordinator that ended with back-to-back losing seasons after a 13-3 mark in ‘01. That crowd received more ammunition after Shoop's offense finished 105th (325.3 ypg) and 92nd (321.4 ypg), respectively, in his first two seasons at UNC.

But his supporters highlight the prevalence of youth, inexperience and a wild rash of injuries – including losing starting quarterback T.J. Yates and ACC Player of the Year contender Brandon Tate in the first half of '09 – as body blows that crippled Shoop's ability to open up his playbook.

As is usually the case, the truth probably lies somewhere in between, and the ‘09 campaign provides the 40-year-old with plenty of opportunities to put on his mad scientist lab coat and concoct some devious plays.

"He's going to try to accommodate whatever attribute you have," junior wide receiver Greg Little said. "If you can run fast, he's going to give you something deep. If you can make moves in the open field, he's going to accommodate you with a shorter route and try to get you into an open space. He has a lot of things up his sleeve. He's very creative in his ways to get you the ball, and he's going to try to get it to you early and often."

Shoop, in his own defense, has more flexibility for creativity in the college game because the parity is nowhere near the level in the NFL, which is a violent version of professional chess.

"If the NFL was like a symphony, you've got to hit these notes right on, bam-bam-bam," Shoop said on Friday. "You can't have any mistakes, where college is a little bit more like jazz. You can kind of feel it a little bit more. The windows aren't quite as tight. We'll draw things up in the middle of the game and stuff like that, so I like that jazz aspect of it."

An interesting choice of words, for sure – especially when you consider freshman A.J. Blue may present the ace in the hole for Shoop's offense this season. Little took UNC's first snap in the wildcat formation – an offensive set that features a direct snap to a running back or wide receiver – against South Carolina in '07, but the Durham, N.C. product never had what Blue possesses – a cannon for an arm.

Red-shirt freshman quarterback Braden Hanson indicated that Blue likely had the strongest arm on the team and could reportedly fling a football 75 yards downfield. Adding the true freshman's passing capabilities to his foot speed provides all of the necessary ingredients for a spread offensive attack, though that's not a primary option in a Butch Davis-led program.

But while the third-year UNC head coach is focused on Blue learning the intricacies of his home at tailback, he did admit that a version of the wildcat package had been added to UNC's offense.

"What that offense has done is that it's allowed people to get playmakers on the field," Davis said. "I think it's clearly something that we're going to face on other teams, and it's something that we've tried to incorporate into our own offense… We're always looking for somebody that might have the ability to do something like that."

Head coaches of most any sport tend to downplay any new development to avoid causing a stir, which is likely why Davis has not informed the media or his fan base that Blue has his own specially-designed package called "Diesel." And this is no gimmicky, once-every-three-games kind of scheme.

"I feel like A.J.'s package will be much more extensive than mine was, because he can throw it a country mile," Little said. "… It'll definitely be a part of our offense. It's definitely not any gadget plays. It's well-practiced. We run it every day. So it's going to a well-used part of our offense. We're going to perfect it and we're going to use it."

Blue's seamless transition into Shoop's offense has arguably been the surprise of training camp.

"He's going to be a great player, whether it's at running back or at quarterback," Hanson said. "… He looks smooth under center. He knows the plays that he has to in his package. He just needs to keep working hard and keep earning the trust of the coaches. If they put him out there, he's got to make plays."

It's one thing to run a new play or package in practice; it's quite another to make the call on game day. It's a risk-reward scenario, meaning that whoever is calling the plays must have the intestinal fortitude, as well as the football IQ, to make the perfect call. Shoop displayed that ability against Miami in '07, calling for a Brandon Tate reverse while the Hurricanes were busy dancing at midfield in an effort to rally out of a 20-0 deficit. The play resulted in a 54-yard touchdown.

There's been plenty of talk this preseason about adding more elements to the offense. Now Shoop just has to decide how far he's willing to push the boundaries.

"We're going to be an exciting offense," Little said. "We're going to do some things that I don't think anybody in the country is doing. I feel like once we get this ball rolling, a lot of people will be shocked at what our offense can do."

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