Coaching change means transition for Heels
North Carolina has a new football coach, its third in as many seasons. The Tar Heels are on NCAA probation, banned from playing in a bowl game this season, and the reputation of the school and program have been sullied.
Yet, there's excitement inside UNC's locker room. The players won't earn any rings this season, but they are optimistic nonetheless. They believe there's plenty to play for. If nothing else, not having a cloud of uncertainty hanging over their heads is a form of relief.
"Oh yeah, no doubt," tight end Eric Ebron said.
Cornerback Tim Scott says it's time to move on and this team could set a standard for future Larry Fedora-coached Carolina clubs to live by.
"We really are trying to forget about it," Scott said. "We know what we have to do and it really has nothing to do with us anymore. We can't go to a bowl game, but at the same time, why can't we try to go undefeated this season and still be who we are?
"We can't dwell on the past, we can only better ourselves for the future."
Fedora inherits a program that not long ago had high hopes under Butch Davis, who took over following the 2006 campaign -- eight meager seasons since Mack Brown led UNC to consecutive top-10 final national rankings.
Davis quickly put together a collection of NFL talent but couldn't win more than eight games in a season before the NCAA whipped out its sword and sliced up the Heels. This year's team, which has no players implicated in the scandal, will pay the price. Many of those that were responsible for what transpired, including Davis, who is getting every penny on his nearly $2 million annual salary, are getting paid in the NFL.
Cornerback Jabari Price arrived as a freshman when the NCAA stuff initially broke. He says the Tar Heels can finally settle down and gain a true identity, starting with what he said as the "most eligible team in the nation."
Decorated academically in high school, Price was only half joking before getting serious.
"A lot of us have been here ever since this happened, and I think it is the kind of thing that will toughen you up," he said. "I think it's made us better at reading people, to know when to trust… That's why we love this new coaching staff so much."
Fedora is brutally honest, the players say. In some cases, perhaps it's a fault. He's also demanding.
Fedora also has a likability that has inspired the players to embrace a unique new approach to playing that is as dramatically different from UNC's previous pro-style offense and standard 4-3 defense as you will find in the college game.
Roy Williams' intent is to make UNC's basketball team the fastest in the nation, but he now has a football rival across campus in Kenan Stadium. Welcome to the era of speed ball in Chapel Hill. The similarities could be considerable, though there may not be enough time for Tar Heels receivers to thank Bryn Renner and company for the passes.
"It's fast," said Renner, who completed 68.3 percent of his passes for 3,086 yards, with 26 touchdowns and 13 interceptions last season. "I think it's just the pace. We want to push tempo and be on the ball and snap it right away and make the defense adjust to us."
The speed isn't just relegated to when the ball is snapped. A lot of teams run spread offenses, but Fedora wants Carolina, which went 7-6 under interim coach Everett Withers a year ago, to be uniquely fast in between plays. He wants to catch defenses in the midst of position changes. He wants opponents running out of breath trying to keep up as the Tar Heels quickly line up using similar formations to run a variance of plays.
"It's not hard to see the stress you put on the defense when you start moving the chains a few times and you've got a tempo going," Fedora said. "The defense gets on their heels, they're breathing pretty hard, those big guys up front, and it makes it tough on them."
The defense will employ a fifth defensive back who will serve more as a rover, capable of lining up as a shadowing linebacker or something personnel can allow that spot to get into a three-point stance somewhere. It allows the defense versatility, while giving cornerbacks better opportunities at sticking with their men.
Getting to where they can smoothly operate on both sides of the ball, especially on offense, will take time. Summer conditioning workouts are different and far more strenuous than in the past, and the challenge to jump into August camp and sort out a pecking order is putting pressure on the players are already. But that's not all bad.
"I'm excited about these changes," Ebron said. "This is football, it's more and more a speed game, and we're finally going to use all of our weapons here. It's going to benefit us all."