Countdown to Kickoff: Elon

Countdown to Kickoff: Elon

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – North Carolina fans have patiently waited 208 days for head coach Larry Fedora to unveil his no-huddle spread offense and 4-2-5 defense. That wait comes to end on Saturday as the Tar Heels open the 2012 season against Elon at Kenan Stadium (12:30pm/ACCN).

It's commonplace for college football fans to rally around a new coaching staff at their school of choice. Fedora is slightly different, however, from the previous 10 UNC head coaches in the ACC era due to his unique offensive approach.

After his 2010 team at Southern Miss established 35 school records, Fedora led the Golden Eagles to a 12-2 record in 2011 behind an offense that averaged 461.4 yards and 36.9 points per game and totaled 6,459 yards on 1,042 plays. All four of those marks would represent new school records at North Carolina.

The balanced spread approach represents a significant philosophical change for the UNC football program, but it's Fedora's no-huddle preference that likely will garner the most attention this weekend. North Carolina averaged 62.5 offensive plays in 2011; Fedora hopes to increase that number by roughly 25 percent, up to 80 offensive snaps per contest.

His philosophy is based in military strategy and all-out aggression. Attack, attack and attack some more. UNC's team motto – "smart, fast and physical" – serves as a constant reminder for the Tar Heels as to what's expected from them.

The speed and tempo of the offense is designed to force defenses to play on their heels.

"If we can get them on their feet and we can get the game rolling, then [opponents] won't have the time to get those different blitzes in and defenses in," center Peyton Jenest said. "In the old pro-style, they had time to really adjust to what we were doing and now, if we get them on their toes, we can get them rolling and hopefully they won't expect or have time to prepare for what we're trying to do."

It helps that quarterback Bryn Renner (239-of-350 passing, 3,086 yards, 26 TD, 13 INT) and All-ACC running back Gio Bernard (1,253 yards, 13 TD in ‘11) appear to be solid fits for this offense.

Renner's reputation for being a gunslinger in the pocket led to several costly poor decisions last fall, but mass repetition and an ever-growing understanding of the schemes has the red-shirt junior ready to improve on his first season as a starter.

"I've got to be a game manager and protect the football, first and foremost," Renner said. "If I do that, I think we have enough skill players and talent around me to be a good football team."

Bernard's role has increased this season to include punt return duties, meaning that fellow running backs Romar Morris and A.J. Blue will be called on to carry the load in the backfield. Six Golden Eagles rushed 59 times or more in 2011 – only two Tar Heels exceeded that mark.

"If you look at a lot of spread teams, they have three or four running backs that get in there," Bernard said. "Look at Oregon – they had three backs last year that did a great job. I think with this offense that we have and this running corps that we have, we need three guys that can rotate and not miss a heartbeat."

Bernard and Co. will look to capitalize on an Elon defense that allowed 191.4 yards on the ground in 2011.

The issue for offensive coordinator Blake Anderson is a lack of experienced talent at the wide receiver position. Seniors Erik Highsmith (51 catches, 726 yards, 5 TD) and Jhay Boyd (14 catches, 292 yards, 5 TD) are the only receivers that have caught a pass in a game. UNC plans on using eight receivers on Saturday, which includes a pair of walk-ons in Roy Smith and Mark McNeill and two true freshmen in Quinshad Davis and Kendrick Singleton.

"Those are the cards that we have, so we're going to play them, and either we're going to bluff you to death or we're going to beat you," wide receivers coach Gunter Brewer said. "It's one way or the other. Everybody's going to get a chance to play in this game that's suited up, and we'll find out who can do it in a live game."

Defensively, North Carolina's blitz-happy 4-2-5 scheme will be tested by quaretback Thomas Wilson (279-of-411 passing, 3057 yards, 23 TD, 21 INT) and wide receiver Aaron Mellette (113 rec, 1,639 yards, 12 TD), a 6-foot-4, 222-pound senior who pulled in 11 catches for 180 yards against Vanderbilt in the 2011 season opener.

Southern Miss forced 28 turnovers last season utilizing the 4-2-5, which doesn't bode well for the Phoenix – Elon ranked dead last (120th) in FCS play last season in turnover margin (minus-2.0).

"If you look at all the early games across the country, turnovers and mistakes in the special teams usually [determine] who wins the game and who loses the game," Fedora said. "So those are two areas we spent a lot of time concentrating on. Those two will be the difference in games throughout the season, but especially early on."

The Tar Heels have participated in 40-plus practices dating back to the spring. An abbreviated 30-minute session on Thursday, followed by a standard walkthrough on Friday, suggests the only thing left to do is take the Kenan Stadium field.

"I couldn't be any more excited, but this is something that I do and I've been doing for 26 years," Fedora said. "I can tell you I have the same knot in my stomach that is way down low every game week, from Day One, since I was a player, and it'll move all the way up to my throat by the kickoff. That hasn't changed and I hope it never does."

North Carolina is looking to win its fifth season opener in six years after losing five of six during the John Bunting era.

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