Posted: 11:20 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2013
By Brian Barbour
The easy and probably too simplistic answer to that question is in Cincinnati doing stuff like this:
The absence of Giovani Bernard is a factor and some drop off from last season was expected. However what has happened through three games so far is not just a minor dip in offensive production but an alarming one.
Obviously three games is a small sample size but it is a sample size that includes a top-15 SEC team, a mid-tier FBS team and an ACC Coastal Division contender that makes it somewhat relevant. That being said, one really good offensive performance might get these numbers on track as compared to last season.
The question is, given UNC has only cracked 400 total yards in one of three games, will that happen? Call me cautiously pessimistic right now.
Outside of missing Bernard, the bigger issue for UNC might be the offensive line. While Bernard was really, really good a year ago, I think many lose sight at how good the line was. The NFL noticed by taking Jonathan Cooper in the first round and also drafting Travis Bond and Brennan Williams. In 12 games last season, Bryn Renner was sacked less than one time per game. So far this season, the offensive line has allowed six sacks and cost the team at least one big play with an ill-timed holding call. Sacks are lost yardage but more importantly drive killers which adds to the offensive inefficiency.
Of course it is not just the offensive line's role that matters here, UNC's overall offensive execution has been lacking. While the line did its job to protect Renner last season, the fact UNC could utilize screen passes and quick throws to Bernard, among others, helped tremendously. Those plays produced yards because Bernard was that good but also had the benefit of getting the ball out of Renner's hands quicker thus avoiding sacks. In essence the playmaking hasn't been there as much as UNC needs it to be for the offense to move the ball. The spread offense is dependent somewhat on getting the ball into space and having players do something with it. That often means using the shorter passes but to this point North Carolina is not getting the same punch or trying to implement more downfield passing which requires better protection.
And looking at the receiving stats, even that hasn't produced much. So far this season, only one player has had an impact game on the offensive side of the ball and that was Eric Ebron's 106 yards and a touchdown against Georgia Tech. The next best receiving performance was 93 yards from Sean Tapley against Middle Tennessee. Quinshad Davis, despite having two touchdowns has eight total catches for 31.0 ypg. That comes to less than three receptions per game. A year ago as a freshman Davis' production was double that on the way to catching 64 balls. The rushing attack is in even direr straits. UNC is only getting 3.31 yards per attempt on the ground. No one was quite expecting the 5+ yards per carry of last season but something north of four yards per attempt would be nice. On this point, it might be on Blake Anderson and Larry Fedora to make some adjustments to see if they can get more out of their backs.
Then there is Bryn Renner, who came into the season with a lot to prove as he looks toward a possible NFL career. It has been a mixed bag so far, though in some respects the aforementioned players and positions might have more to do with that than Renner. Still, the fifth year senior has been sharp at times and in other instances a little off. That is reflected in his completion percentages which is down six percent over last season and nine percent over his first year as a starter. Dropped passes from his teammates have hurt those numbers along with the expected misfires on Renner's part.. One negative on Renner is he tends to get "happy feet" in the pocket. He can be noticeably agitated if he doesn't get the time he needs to throw. With the offensive line being not quite as good as it was last season, chances are Renner isn't able to be as sharp as he could be without the same protection.
In short, there are a lot of moving parts to the offensive struggles. Fedora has noted that all facets of the unit must improve.
“Well we’re not playing as well offensively. We’re just not playing that well it’s as simple as that. It would be
easy if it were just one thing. If it was one thing and we hit that one thing correctly, but there’s a lot of things
involved. We’re still just not gelling as an offense. Some of it is the continuity up front and the young guys up
front are still…I just think there’s a lot of different pieces. We’re not getting in flow. You’ve got to keep moving
the chains to get in a flow offensively for everyone involved. We’re just…from a penalty here to a missed block
here to a misread here; it’s always one guy. That’s the thing on offense you’ve got to have all 11. All 11 have to
be willing at the same time"
In addition to the offense seeming out of sorts, the penalties have not helped. UNC's miscues in this area on Saturday crippled multiple drives not just the 82-yard touchdown pass to Ryan Switzer. As Fedora said, there is a feeling that it is not one thing but one different thing here, another thing there making it difficult to nail it down.
The bottom line here is Life After Gio was going to be bumpy but I am not sure anyone thought it would be so bumpy the Tar Heels would be 83rd in total offense nationally after three games. The feeling you get watching this team is there are parts but they don't seem to be working well together. That is a little surprising from the receiving corps given some of the talent that is there. Ebron showed signs of being the caliber of player the Tar Heels need the wait continues on Davis or someone else to make themselves a threat. And while it is understandable Fedora wants to use a pair of running backs to offer a "change of pace" neither Romar Morris or A.J. Blue have stepped up in a meaningful way. In fact, UNC got better production from these two last season with Bernard out for two games than so far which is probably a testament to the offensive line.
At some point you sort of expect this unit to just click. However that might prove difficult given the road is going to get any easier. ECU is playing marginally better defense and Virginia Tech looks much closer to a Frank Beamer team on that side of the ball. As the season goes on, UNC really doesn't have any cupcakes they can drill to get some confidence in what they are doing. The next few games are tough in their own right leaving UNC facing the distinct possibility of a 2-4 or even 1-5 start if the offense doesn't find it's way soon.