Fedora looking to build on promise of first year at UNC

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — A year ago, North Carolina head coach Larry
Fedora was taking over a team that he knew very little about — only
what he was able to glean during a short spring practice. He knew their
numbers, or some identifying trait about them, but not everyone’s names.
And he certainly didn’t know what everyone on his roster was capable of
doing.

“We know everybody’s names. That makes it a whole lot
easier,” Fedora said. “When I say that, I mean we actually know what
kids can do. We know what their strengths are, their weaknesses are and
we can continue to work on their weaknesses and try to improve their
strengths. But it is much easier than it was at this time last year.”

Everything
is easier for Fedora’s Tar Heels as they enter Year 2. And yet it’s
harder, too. Last year, with a postseason ban and new schemes on both
sides of the ball, there weren’t any expectations.

But Fedora
instilled an attitude in that team that there were no free passes, and
they should play the season like they could actually win the Coastal
Division title. They did, and they “did” (the postseason ban meant the
ACC voted not to recognize UNC for winning a three-way tiebreaker for
the regular-season Coastal crown).

Since UNC played as if it was
eligible for the postseason a year ago, there’s been no change in
attitude or expectations, according to Fedora.

“We haven’t even
addressed that, not once, since last season. So is there a different
atmosphere? I’m not going to really say there is, because it’s not
something we’ve talked about,” Fedora said.

“I think last year
was good for us. I think it made guys really dig down and figure out why
they play the game. I think that’ll carry over to this year. I think
they all know what’s out there, but it’s not something we’ve talked
about as a team.”

As Fedora has gotten to know his team, though,
he’s past the point of installing his up-tempo offense or making the
best with what he had a year ago on defense. He’s now able to push his
best players and mold them a bit more in his image, helping them become
the players he thinks that they’re capable of being.

Junior tight
end Eric Ebron was a preseason All-ACC choice, and it was a pretty easy
one. He had 40 catches for 625 yards a year ago and averaged nearly 21
yards per reception, but he only had four touchdowns. Fedora has decided
Ebron should score at least 12 this year.

“That’s what I expect
from him, and I hope he expects it from himself. He doesn’t have to get
any more than 12, but he’s got to get 12 for me,” Fedora said. “What he
does beyond that is for him, but he’s got to get 12 for me. There’s no
reason with his talent that he can’t produce more than what he did last
year for us, and that’s critical.

“You try to take his game to
another level, it’s not about just catches; it’s not about just blocking
at the point of attack. It’s about ‘Hey, when you get the ball in my
hands, I want you to get the ball in the end zone. I don’t want you just
to pick up the first down. I want you to get the ball in the end
zone.'”

Sophomore wide receiver Quinshad Davis, like Ebron, had a
breakout year. But also like Ebron, he didn’t score enough for Fedora’s
liking (just five times). Quarterback Bryn Renner spread out his
touchdowns among quite a few receivers, including his tailbacks, so it’s
not necessarily bad if a receiver didn’t have ten or more scores last
year.

But Fedora said that a lot of the failure to score was a
lack of strength, or maybe even will, at times. In the offseason, he
showed Davis tape of him getting tackled inside the 5-yard line. It
happened way more than either he or Davis cared to remember.

So Davis has put on weight and strength, while Ebron grins happily and nods when asked about his 12-touchdown goal.

“You
want to take your game to another level, let’s get the ball in the end
zone. Don’t be denied,” Fedora said. “It’s just each kid, what can I
find to motivate that kid to get him to push his game to the next level?
That’s one thing with Ebron — you didn’t get in the end zone as many
times as you ought to. The type of player you are, let’s go. Let’s don’t
underachieve. Let’s overachieve.”

Now, Fedora is just trying to
figure out the right way to motivate his defensive guys. And once he
does, the sky is the limit for this UNC team. The Tar Heels are going to
score points, although their offense could get a little crisper.

But
the defense was a problem last year, which Fedora readily admitted.
While the rest of the team showed progress as the year went along, the
defense oftentimes seemed to be going backwards as the year wound down.

“At
that point, you’ve got a situation where I think there was probably a
little bit of a confidence problem. It all goes down to overcoming
adversity and just eventually stepping up and saying, ‘Hey, enough’s
enough and we’re going to do things and get it done.’ We probably didn’t
do that in some situations on the defensive side of the ball,” Fedora
said.

And so at practice, he’s motivating that unit collectively.
He’s reminding the older defensive backs that they need to mentor the
young and talented players behind them. And he’s giving the defense as a
whole numbers and goals to live up to in practice.

“We obviously
want to cut down on the big plays that we gave up last year and we want
to create more turnovers. Those two things have been a point of
emphasis,” Fedora said. “For the defense, it’s how many turnovers can
you create? How many balls can you knock out? How many can you return
for (a touchdown)? All those things, and we keep track of all that in a
practice.

“Those guys know — I guarantee you, throughout the
entire practice, they know what those numbers are. They may not say it
out loud, but they know. If you ask them, they could tell you. And they
know what they need to do before a practice was over with.”