Running back Gio Bernard and offensive linemen Jonathan Cooper, Brennan Williams and Travis Bond played significant roles in UNC churning out 193.8 rushing yards per game last season, good for 33rd nationally and third best in the ACC.
Through two games this fall, UNC’s ground game production has been nearly cut in half, down to 116.5 yards per contest. On Saturday, the Tar Heels netted 158 rushing yards on 42 carries – 3.8 yards per carry – against a Middle Tennessee defense that allowed 188.3 rushing yards per game last season.
That inefficiency left head coach Larry Fedora scratching his head following UNC’s 40-20 victory.
“There are going to be some growing pains when you have four new parts to any machine,” offensive coordinator Blake Anderson said on Tuesday. “It’s going to take a little work.”
North Carolina thrived on the big play in the running game last season. Bernard and Co. delivered 70 runs of 10 yards or more, including 16 that went for 20-plus. So far this season UNC has posted four rushing plays or 10 yards or more with only one – Romar Morris’s 26-yard TD run versus Middle Tennessee – eclipsing the 20-yard mark.
“Our expectation level is much high than that,” Fedora said during his radio show on Tuesday night. “We’ve got to get into that second and third level more often and make people miss or run through them. We’ve got to have bigger plays in the running game. We just didn’t have enough of those.”
Morris (25 carries, 115 yards, 2 TD), A.J. Blue (18 carries, 81 yards) and Khris Francis (10 carries, 42 yards) have worked in a committee approach to fill the void left by Bernard’s early departure. Along the offensive line sophomore right guard Landon Turner and a pair of red-shirt freshmen – right tackle Jon Heck and left guard Caleb Peterson – are assuming the veteran roles left by their predecessors.
With youth and inexperience rampant in both position groups, is one to blame more than the other? That answer is most likely no, with caveats.
Senior offensive left tackle James Hurst indicated communication issues up front have resulted in faulty execution.
“From our perspective, we can’t look at the running backs,” Hurst said. “We know that they will do their job and they expect us to do ours. Right now, we’re not getting it done up front. Four guys will do what they’re supposed to do and one guy won’t. That’s what is happening to us.”
Hurst added that a lot of the time the offensive linemen don’t even know which running back is lined up behind them due to the hectic tempo.
UNC’s trio of running backs each carried the ball 10 times against the Blue Raiders, highlighting the lack of separation within the group.
“We’re still searching for one of those three guys to really step out above the other ones in a sense where you feel like a guy’s got a rhythm and a feel for it,” Anderson said. “I don’t know that any of them have had enough reps to really know who that guy is yet.”
UNC’s offense has struggled to find its rhythm thus far, due primarily to inconsistency in the ground game. While the Tar Heels had several big passing plays on Saturday, it was a challenge for quarterback Bryn Renner to blow the top off the defense with Middle Tennessee being able to play safeties deep.
“Any time you run the ball effectively it creates seams in the passing game,” Anderson said. “If you’ve got to add guys to the box to stop the run, the pass game becomes better, the play-action game become better, so we’ve always made a point to make people stop the run. We’re not going to change that.”
North Carolina’s bye week provides extra time to work out those kinks ahead of next Saturday’s ACC opener at Georgia Tech.