Fedora looking to build on promise of first year at UNC

Under a bowl ban in Larry Fedora's first year, he has North Carolina thinking big in Year 2.

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."