CHAPEL HILL, NC — Finally, it’s football time at North Carolina.
Larry Fedora will coach his first game with UNC this Saturday when the Tar Heels host nearby FCS member Elon at Kenan Stadium, and with it should come a great deal of relief to the program’s fans and the players themselves.
The NCAA investigation and punishment is in Carolina’s rearview mirror, but nagging issues stemming from a deeper look into the program continue to surface. But at least now folks can talk about something other than the African American Studies Department, Julius Peppers’ decade-old transcript and a bowl ban for this season.
Instead, it’s time to focus on Fedora and his fast-paced approach to everything on the field. Literally, Fedora, who coached Southern Mississippi to a Conference USA championship last season, wants the Tar Heels to do everything faster than ever before, and the transition has hit some snags, as one might imagine. But Fedora and the staff are excited the games are finally here.
“I am overly excited about being at the University of North Carolina from day one when (athletic director) Bubba Cunningham graciously offered me the job to be the head football coach here, so that hasn’t changed,” Fedora said Monday. “The excitement level hasn’t changed. I couldn’t be any more excited, but this is something that I do and I’ve been doing for 26 years…
“I’m really excited, but it is our first opportunity to go out there as a football team and show the Tar Heel fans who we are.”
That is a theme in Chapel Hill these days. The players are anxious to show their fans just how different they are, sort of like a new toy on Christmas morning. The players are proud of their transition from a pro-style offense and standard 4-3 defense to a fast-paced spread offense and a multifaceted defense than can show numerous looks without changing personnel.
The Tar Heels finished 7-6 a year ago under interim coach Everett Withers, and can’t wait to show off their new football selves.
“It all started when they (new staff) first got here, they told us everything is about speed in this offense and everything is about being a great tempo team,” sophomore tailback Gio Bernard said. “We’ve done a great job handling ourselves with conditioning… We’re just ready, we’re just ready to show everybody what we’ve been working on.”
The one player most fans will focus on with all of the changes is quarterback Bryn Renner.
Renner passed for 3,086 yards and 26 touchdowns last season, playing much of the year on a sore ankle, which was fixed last winter. He’s lost weight and has learned the nuances of running a spread offense in college, which is different from the spread Renner ran in high school.
The junior from Springfield, VA, battled through the transition, but is confident he’s ready to go.
“I’ve made smart decisions with the ball,” Renner said, referring to his play in fall camp. “I’ve had a reputation in the past of being a gunslinger and just slinging the ball into tight spaces. But I’ve tried to mature and grow up and out of the mold to be a game manager. Coach Fedora has come in and challenged me in that area.”
Fedora says Renner has made tremendous strides and is optimistic that process will continue.
“I would have to say that compared to (former USM quarterback) Austin Davis his first year, (former Oklahoma State QB) Zac Robinson, and (former Florida QB) Chris Leak… He’s as far along as any of them. He probably has more physical talent than all the others.”
But Saturday is about more than Renner or even Fedora for that matter. It’s an opportunity to begin a new era, to begin the process of adopting a new identity.
It was only almost 26 months ago when the NCAA nightmare started for this program, school, community and fan base, but it seems like much longer than that. A desire to make a statement this weekend is apparent, and totally understandable.
“The biggest thing is probably they’re hungry,” Fedora said about his team. “They’ve been hungry for somebody to care about them. They’re hungry for something positive to happen in their lives They’ve been eager to please. They want to do things the way we ask them to do them.”
And they want to play a real football game, and that will finally happen this weekend among the pines.