Tar Heels aim to pick up the pace

Larry Fedora has used his fast-paced spread offense to set a myriad school records at previous college football stops. Now he’s ready to pick up the pace at North Carolina.

Fedora was hired at North Carolina on Dec. 8, replacing interim coach Everett Withers, who guided the Tar Heels to a 7-6 record in 2011, after former coach Butch Davis was fired before the season.

But Fedora’s offense comes with a steep learning curve. He has spent much of spring practice trying to teach the Tar Heels how to play at a faster pace. North Carolina will no longer huddle, and Fedora’s goal is to run at least 80 plays per game. The Tar Heels averaged 62.5 plays per game last season; Southern Miss averaged 74.4.

Fedora wants the Tar Heels to spend about five seconds between snaps to increase their productivity.

“The things we’ve been focusing on are the different speeds we want to play at because it’s new to us,” UNC quarterback Bryn Renner said. “Once we get the tempo down, we can focus on the plays and formations.”

UNC’s offensive linemen have to learn to run back to the line of scrimmage, instead of huddling, and receivers and running backs have to hurry back to their positions as well.

“There’s a huge learning curve for the offensive linemen,” Fedora said. “In the past, they went to the huddle and were holding hands or whatever. They were able to catch their breath. In this system, they’re up and in a stance. Eventually they’ll see the advantages in it.”

Renner, who completed 68.3 percent of his passes for 3,086 yards with 26 touchdowns and 13 interceptions in his first season as a starter in 2011, will carry the biggest load in Fedora’s offense. Renner underwent surgery on his left ankle in December and then spent much of his recovery time digesting Fedora’s playbook.

“For about three weeks, I sat on the couch in a cast and studied it,” Renner said. “It helped me a lot, just having his playbook.”

For the Tar Heels to be successful in Fedora’s first season, Renner will have to play well.

“I think a lot of it depends on your quarterback,” Fedora said. “You’re only going to be as good as that guy. He’s got to have the intangibles and the willingness to learn and be able to process information quickly. A lot of it is on his shoulders.”

It helps that Renner played in a spread offense while playing for his father, Bill Renner, at West Springfield (Va.) High School.

“Right when I first met [Fedora], he told me the offense is going to go with how well the quarterback knows it and how he can relay it to his teammates and make the plays work,” Renner said. “It’s all in my hands to get this offense moving.”

While much of the burden falls on Renner, Fedora also wants the Tar Heels to be balanced. In Fedora’s last season as Oklahoma State’s offensive coordinator in 2007, the Cowboys ranked No. 7 nationally in total offense, averaging 243 rushing and 243 passing yards per game. He wants similar balance at UNC.

Tailback Giovani Bernard is back after rushing for 1,253 yards with 13 touchdowns as a freshman in 2011. But there’s a dearth of wide receivers -- only five scholarship wideouts are coming back; Fedora likes to have at least 12 to rotate into games.

There’s another big obstacle in Fedora’s first season -- the Tar Heels won’t be eligible to play in a bowl game. In March, they were placed on three years’ probation by the NCAA, which included a one-year bowl ban and the loss of 15 scholarships.

But it might actually end up being a blessing for Fedora, who can install his complex system with lesser expectations.

“What are you going to do?” Fedora said. “Sit around and complain about it? That’s just not the way I am. We’re going to move forward. How we react is how we’re going to be remembered. We’ll grow from it. We’ll be better and we’ll be stronger.”

And, of course, the Tar Heels will be a lot faster.