This past spring, when North Carolina held its first scrimmage, it only took one play for the offense to score. Larry Fedora’s spread offense had worked -- fast.
“It’s like mach 5,” quarterback Bryn Renner said. “It’s literally as fast as you can go, get on the ball, and really it was a culture shock during spring.”
For the defense, too. Linebacker Kevin Reddick spent this summer working out three times a day, including a 90-minute spin class he took as part of his exercise sport science major. He recently told his strength coach he’s in the best conditioning of his life.
He has to be in order to keep up with the new “Fed Spread.”
“It was just like playing ECU -- winded,” Reddick said of the Tar Heels’ first scrimmage. “The first two drives we were winded. But being that we’re going against it every day we’re going to be ready. I love that we’re going against a fast-paced offense every day. It gets us more in shape. When we play a team that’s going to be slow to us, we’ll be running fast, we’ll run 100 mph because we’re doing it every day in practice.”
For the second straight season, ACC defenses will have to contend with another up-tempo, spread offense aiming for about 80 plays a game. Last year, Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris became one of the most sought-after assistants in the country because of his offensive philosophy, which is similar to what Fedora wants to do in Chapel Hill. In the first season under Morris, Clemson averaged a school-record 440.8 yards per game and scored a school-record 58 touchdowns and 470 points.
“I think we snapped the ball second-most of any team in the country,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said, “and when you do that, you pretty much have to play five quarters of football instead of four. That’s something you have to gear yourself up for.”
The Tar Heels aren’t just geared up for it, they’re confident in it.
“I know it’s going to work,” Reddick said. “I know it’s going to work. At times they even get us at practice. They’re going to wear some people out. People aren’t going to be able to run with them for four quarters. It’s too fast. I think it will work wonders for us and help put points on the board this year.”
Renner said he spoke with Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd a little bit about the similarities and differences in what they’re doing. The easiest comparison is in the tempo, and Renner said this year, 75-80 plays is the goal.
“That would be awesome if we could reach that,” he said.
Virginia Tech’s defense will have to be ready for it if the Hokies are going to defend their Coastal Division title this season. Last year, Virginia Tech lost to Clemson twice, and the Hokies have to play both UNC and Clemson on the road this year in a three-week span in October.
“That was the first time I really faced an offense like that,” Virginia Tech cornerback Kyle Fuller said of the first meeting against Clemson last year. “You did see a lot of the same stuff the second game, but they had our number. Some teams are up-tempo, some are not. You have to be ready for whatever you get.”
Duke defensive end Kenny Anunike said coach David Cutcliffe will have two offenses prepared at practice to help try and simulate the speed. Cutcliffe, who also runs the spread offense at times, will blow the whistle, have the first group sprint off the field and the second group substitute in and snap the ball immediately while the defense tries to get the call in.
“We practice this day in and day out so it’s really fast during practice,” Anunike said. “We’re like, ‘C’mon, we need to catch our breath.’ But then when we get into a game it’s that much slower because we’ve been practicing it and practicing it. We have reps and we’re really prepared.
“We’re definitely seeing more of it because offenses are trying to displace defenses,” he said. “They’re trying to get us out of position so they can sneak one right past you and get into the end zone.”
Expect UNC to get there often.
Fedora’s Southern Miss team last year was 17th in the nation in total offense (461.4 yards per game) and 14th in scoring offense with 36.9 points per game. Much like Clemson, the Tar Heels return their starting quarterback and a 1,000-yard rusher in Giovani Bernard. While the no-huddle, spread offense will often feature at least three receivers on the field the majority of the time – and sometimes even four or five – Bernard will be sure to get his carries, much like Clemson’s Andre Ellington did last year in Morris’ system.
“When I say spread, immediately everybody thinks go fast and throw it every down,” Fedora said. “That’s not who we are. In the last five years we averaged over 205 yards rushing a game. There are teams that run the ball all the time that don’t average 205 yards rushing. We pride ourselves on being able to do both. I don’t believe defenses can take both away.”
They will, however, certainly try.