“It’s something that we’re constantly talking about because we’re going to be very up-tempo,” Fedora told reporters following practice. “We practice the way we’re going to play. So we were probably at about half the speed that we would normally go today and we’ll hopefully evolve.”
What made that quote so telling is how the Tar Heels responded when told that the speed of practice would only increase. Senior offensive guard Jonathan Cooper’s eyes got large and sophomore running back Gio Bernard could only laugh.
“It’s not a shock, but it is kind of scary,” Cooper said. “The speed we were going at felt pretty high level to me and it was kind of difficult to maintain.”
Bernard agreed, saying, “If that’s half, then we’re going to have to go a little harder on Friday. For me and a couple of other guys, it was a little fast.”
John Bunting’s early practices resembled more of a NFL walkthrough than a typical college practice. Butch Davis improved efficiency by minimizing wasted time in between drills, but there was still plenty of downtime during the specific drills for players to catch their breath.
Last fall, the first-team offense would run a play and then return to the back of the line to wait for the second and third team to cycle through. On Wednesday, the first team would run a play and then just keep running up the field before circling around. By the time that first unit made it back to the line of scrimmage, it was time to run another play as the second and third teams had already taken their reps.
There was at most a 10-second gap between the ball being snapped by any given unit.
Fedora commended strength and conditioning coach Lou Hernandez for prepping the players for the demands of his grueling practices. The first-year UNC head coach indicated that the players weren’t where they needed to be yet, but noted that in the first pass skill of the day, the offense totaled 21 reps in about 11 minutes.
“We’ve got to give these guys a little bit of room,” Fedora said. “It’s not near at the speed that we’re going to go at and so the coaches will ramp it up as we feel like these guys can handle it.”
The intent of the practice speed is to replicate a game speed that will be in stark contrast to former offensive coordinator John Shoop’s pro-style, huddle-up approach. There will be no huddle under Fedora. Instead, players will pick themselves up off the ground and hurry back to their spot on the line of scrimmage.
“Getting in a huddle you get to breathe, you get to process the play before you even step up to the line of scrimmage,” sophomore offensive tackle James Hurst said. “Now you’re sitting at the line of scrimmage waiting for the play to come to you, so I think the process and all that stuff. As fast as possible, obviously, and then you have to think about technique and everything - the small differences that we have now.”
The defense, split up into four different groups, cycled through drills at an equally quick pace. Defensive coordinator Vic Koenning could be heard yelling, “Hurry up! Hurry up!” as soon as the horn sounded for his next group of players to move to his location.
“It’s just a lot faster,” senior linebacker Kevin Reddick said when asked about the difference from his previous coaching staff. “I think the intensity is a lot better, too, but overall it’s just a lot faster.”
The fast-paced tempo, combined with blaring music made of players’ choices, creates a feeling of organized chaos on the practice field, but the ultimate goal is to adapt to that setting while learning a new offense and defense.
Fedora informed reporters that while he would love to get all aspects of his playbook installed during spring ball, he knows that’s not realistic.
“I think if we get about 70 percent of everything in, we’ll be doing pretty good,” Fedora said.
Fedora told his players prior to the start of spring ball that practice doesn’t ensure success; it’s the way the team practices. The purpose is not just to go fast, but to process the play in a short amount of time and know how to respond. That’s the ultimate goal for these 15 spring practices.
“When we come out of this thing, we ought to have a pretty good feel for our base on offense, defense and special teams,” Fedora said. “And more importantly, that they know how to practice the Carolina way. Learning how to practice the way we want to practice is so important to our success. And then after that, it will just be evaluating and finding the guys that are going to help us win that Coastal Division championship.”
If Wednesday’s practice was any indication of the tempo that UNC will showcase on Saturdays in the fall, then Fedora wasn’t lying at his introductory press conference when he told fans that they would miss a touchdown if they left their seat for a beverage.
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