Leading The Way
Inside Carolina Magazine
WORDS: Zach Read
PHOTOS: Jim Hawkins
laying 13 games on a broken foot—I'll never forget that," Jonathan Cooper recently told former teammate Bryn Renner, referring to the fifth-year quarterback's 2011 season. That was Renner's first year leading the Tar Heel offense, and it was his most trying. Renner remembers it well, especially the beginning of summer camp when, within a matter of days, head coach Butch Davis was fired and the sophomore quarterback found out he'd broken his foot.
Initially, he was told he'd be out for six months. An emotional and fiery kid to begin with, Renner shed tears when he found out that his first season as the Tar Heels' starting quarterback was in jeopardy. He remembers calling his father to vent, which he sometimes does when something is weighing on him. And then he talked to Scott Trulock, head athletic trainer for football. Trulock told him he could play with some injections; he'd have to battle through the pain, but it would be manageable, and he should be able to perform. The decision was easy.
Renner looks back on his sophomore season as a moment of maturation—playing through the pain was something he had to endure to get to where he is today.
"That was the most difficult period of my career," he admits.
And that's no small statement for a player who has plenty of difficult times from which to pick. Nobody would have blamed him if he—and other Tar Heels—had left Chapel Hill when the NCAA came calling in 2010. As a redshirt freshman that year, he'd suddenly found himself in a program engulfed by NCAA investigations, clouds that have hung over Carolina football and the university for a majority of his career. But Renner and his teammates stuck around, and he learned a lot about his brothers in the Tar Heel locker room, the Carolina program, and the university.
"I've seen it all," he says, laughing. "Your coach and the guys who recruited you getting fired, starting over with a new staff, and all we've been through as a university—and yet no one left. It speaks volumes for the program's and the team's character."
Renner recalls the pivotal team meeting when the seniors stood up and said they wanted to stay at UNC and finish what they started, despite not being allowed to play in a bowl. That moment crystallized his feelings for Carolina football and the university.
"It goes unnoticed—our character," he says. "But we stuck together, and that's character."
Renner will have an opportunity to finish what he started this fall. The senior leader will take what he's learned in year one under head coach Larry Fedora and offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Blake Anderson and apply it to his final season. According to Renner, he's much more comfortable heading into the fall than he was a year ago.
"It's night and day from last year," he explains. "I understand where to go with the ball much better than I did a year ago. Coach Anderson has helped me in that area, especially this spring, in terms of checking the ball down and moving the chains. Coach Fedora preaches to me about being a game manager, about living to fight another day and accepting that punting is sometimes okay. Down the stretch last year I was doing that more consistently, and I expect to be better this season."
Renner's game management was much improved between 2011 and 2012, as evidenced by his decreased interception totals (from 13 to 7). There's been no better witness to Renner's growth than Anderson, who credits the quarterback's improvement, especially in the second half of the 2012 season, to a number of factors, including maturity and commitment.
"It's night and day from last year."
"I don't think he played well the first half of last year," says Anderson. "He was reactionary. But I think he's made a tremendous amount of improvement. He's much more aware of his role as it pertains to everyone else, and in terms of his decision-making, he's much more in control. He's communicating, he's familiar with his outlets and his dump offs, and it has given him comfort knowing something is there and has created confidence knowing he can sit on a progression longer. … I definitely feel he's matured a great deal. It's obvious he's been studying film."
Despite losing All-ACC running back Giovani Bernard and three standout linemen to the NFL, Renner should be surrounded by a healthier and more abundant cupboard of Tar Heel playmakers this fall than he had available to him during the 2012 campaign. A number of players will be returning from injury, and other skill players will benefit, like Renner, from the experience of having played a season in Fedora's system.
"Last year we were depleted at wide receiver," says Renner. "It limited our ability to go faster. This year it's going to be totally different. We have multiple guys stepping up. In the Spring Game we were plugging guys in here and there, and if one player went deep, another came in, and we knew he could get the job done. Having that depth and having guys understand their roles better are huge factors in helping speed up the transition time from play to play. It's going to help us go much faster."
One player who immediately draws a smile from Renner when mentioned is true sophomore wide receiver Quinshad Davis, who caught 61 passes for 776 yards and 5 touchdowns last season—stellar numbers for a freshman. But it wasn't until Carolina's final three games that Davis became a primary target for Renner. In those three contests, against Georgia Tech, Virginia, and Maryland, Renner and Davis hooked up for 32 receptions for 417 yards and 3 touchdowns, including an ACC-record-tying 16 receptions in Charlottesville. Although Carolina fans may have been surprised by just how reliable Davis became at the end of last season, Renner traces his own high expectations of his teammate back to Davis's first training camp.
"He's an extreme talent," says Renner. "As soon as he came out after missing a couple days last summer, you knew he was going to be something special."
Carolina fans can see with their own eyes that Davis has the physical gifts to be a special player and a perfect target: he's blessed with a 6-4 frame and incredible hands. But it's not just natural traits that make him special: Renner appreciates Davis's attitude, which blends humility and confidence.
"The biggest thing about him is that he's so humble and quiet," Renner continues. "He has an incredible work ethic. He goes about his job quietly, but he always wants the ball and wants to be the guy to make plays. Down the stretch last year he really produced for us, and we're expecting him to do the same this year."
Renner believes that he and Davis have found a unique rhythm that will prove difficult for opponents to stop, and he credits Davis's love of, and dedication to, the game for helping them get on the same page.
"In the offseason, he was the first one in and the last one to leave," he says. "He's always asking me to watch tape, and he's always in my hip pocket. We built that rapport late last season and it's carried over into the offseason."
Renner isn't alone in his expectations of Davis. The coaching staff, including Anderson, believes the Renner-Davis connection will improve this fall.
"When we put Quinshad out as a freshman, no one knew how good he'd be," says Anderson. "But as they both started to learn the system, it was fun to watch the two of them together and see their confidence grow. As the season went on, Bryn knew he could find Quinshad."
While Renner's intense leadership style may make him seem at odds with Davis's low-key approach, Anderson sees some important similarities in their personalities.
"Quinshad has a will to win too," Anderson says. "He brings that fierce, competitive drive all week, and that makes you confident and better on Saturday."
"The main focus for me is winning games. That's what people remember."
Renner's brand of intensity can at times be difficult to manage; he has a tendency to lean on himself too hard. An incomplete pass or an interception can linger too long in his mind. In fact, Anderson acknowledges that there are times that Renner is his own worst enemy.
"It's a rollercoaster coaching him," Anderson admits. "He's such an intense player and kid that he can be hard on himself, which is good at times and bad at times. The result is that it creates highs and lows. But his passion for the game, the same thing that makes him angry when he makes a mistake, is fun because it drives his love to study, his love of the game, and his love of the meetings we have. When he throws a pick or an incomplete pass, it's hard to manage, but I would rather have that than a guy who makes excuses."
Despite the injuries that have plagued Renner's career, he isn't one to make excuses for an interception here or a bad performance there. When asked about one area where he plans to contribute more during his senior year, he mentions running the ball. Naturally, he hasn't been able to take off down field the way he'd hoped to when he entered college as a freshman. Injuries to his foot, ankle, and knee have prevented him from playing at full capacity. But entering his final season in Chapel Hill, Renner says he's as healthy as he's ever been.
"I worked hard in the offseason with Coach Lou," Renner says, referring to strength and conditioning coach Lou Hernandez. "And this year I'm going to take off my knee brace. I need to show people I can move. I've gained 10 pounds and I'm up to 225 pounds, the most I've ever weighed. This is the best I've felt and I'm looking forward to having a great year."
Anderson wouldn't be surprised to see his quarterback pick up a few more yards with his legs for the Tar Heel offense.
"We absolutely anticipate runs from Bryn," says Anderson. "He's healthy for the first time since he's been here, and we're seeing a quickness and step from him that we haven't seen before. He can run better than he's shown in previous years, and he wants to prove to people that he can."
Whether Renner breaks any long runs for touchdowns remains to be seen, but if it were to happen, fans can feel confident that they'll see one of Renner's patented touchdown celebrations—at least on the sidelines. Renner and fellow quarterback Caleb Pressley still hold the lawnmower celebration dear, one that has puzzled many fans.
The idea for it came one day while watching baseball umpire strikeout motions on YouTube. Renner was reminded of his days playing baseball as a kid, which in turn recalled images of grass being mowed. Then one day at practice last year, while doing a 40-yard net drill, Renner hit the net and immediately went into his lawnmower celebration.
"We call it ‘I-mow,'" says Renner, laughing. "Sometimes you need to have a little fun. There's a time and a place to be serious, but you have to have that balance. I'm so competitive that being able to have a little fun is important. But there's some depth to it too. I try to explain to Coach Fedora that mowing lawns is like football—you go from lawn to lawn to lawn, just like we go from game to game to game. Finish your lawn and keep going."
How does Coach Anderson feel about the celebration?
"The first time he did it, it kind of happened and it was over," Anderson says. "I'm not keen on the after-the-play stuff. None of that is allowed in college, so it had to be moved to the sideline. I laughed, but I've also had to bring it down to earth."
"He's such an intense player…"
Even though the existence of I-mow might confuse some into thinking Renner is interested in self-promotion, the senior quarterback's sole focus is clearly on winning. Poised to set school passing records during his final season in Chapel Hill, he says individual accolades don't concern him.
"I don't think you can think about those things," he says. "You can't think about your career until you're done. The main focus for me is winning games. That's what people remember. I want Carolina fans to remember me for playing the game hard, for being competitive, and for never giving up until the whistle blows. We went 7-6 my first year and 8-4 last year. We can build on that this season, and that's what people will remember."
By the time Renner's career finishes in Chapel Hill, the coaching staff will have only had two full seasons with him. Still, they have a clear idea of what he's meant to the program and how much they'll miss his presence, his leadership, and his abilities. As Anderson acknowledges, their quarterback is central to the effort to replace the key leadership that has moved on to the NFL.
"We're losing a lot of great leaders in Coop, Gio, Reddick, and Sly," says Anderson. "But if you have a senior quarterback that cares as much as he does and has the skill that he does, you can beat anybody. Over the past year, Bryn has shown a tremendous amount of leadership. It won't show up on the stat sheet, but it's critical."
Since the end of last season, Renner has been mentally preparing himself and his teammates for the fall campaign. He's been waiting for an opportunity to play on a stage like the one the Tar Heels will find themselves on to open their season. And he believes his Tar Heels will be entering the season with a chip on their shoulder, with the collective goal of improving on last season and playing for the ACC Championship they missed out on last year.
Whatever happens, Renner is going to cherish his senior season in Chapel Hill, and he already gets goosebumps thinking about his final game at Kenan Stadium. Despite all the clichés he heard about how quickly it would go by, he still never thought the day would come.
"It's going to be a sad day, because I love being a Tar Heel," he says, choking up. "I know how much of a blessing it was to come here and play for this university, and I'm grateful for everything it's provided me, all the opportunities. The people here are what make it so special, and I hope one day I can give back. It's going to be really hard walking off the field for the last time, but I'll always bleed Tar Heel blue."