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March 15, 2013Now that North Carolina has a year under its belt under Larry Fedora and his coaching staff, expectations are way higher.
Expectations that the players know what's going on.
Expectations that they can handle entering the lineup at any given time to replace someone.
And the expectation that these Tar Heel players will be able to keep up with the pace and tempo of practice, as well as UNC's high-octane spread offense, throughout this year's spring season and beyond.
"We know their names (this year). I mean, really. You know the guy's faces. You know the names. They know what to expect of us (the coaches) also, and I think that's big," said Coach Fedora.
"One thing they do understand is the tempo we want to practice at, and they understand what effort is. They know when that ball is snapped, for the next four to six seconds, they've got to go as hard as they can go. They might make a mistake, but you've got to go hard. So we're not having to coach effort all the time. Now we're coaching technique."
Without as much time being needed in practice this spring to teach tempo, the coaches can concentrate with the players on refining specific areas that need growth, such as footwork and technique for the offensive linemen, route running and pass catching for the receivers, and making the right decisions on behalf of the quarterbacks.
"They understand the philosophy offensively, defensively, and they understand the philosophy on special teams. We only get 15 (practices this spring), but so does everybody else, so we've got to get more out of 15 than anybody else," said Fedora.
"It feels a lot different. We're in better shape. We anticipate how fast we've got to move. We're comfortable with how fast we've got to move, so it (the first practices) was a lot different---better---this year from last year. We definitely know what we're doing. It's a big step from last year. Everybody is knowing what they're got to do and anticipating how fast we've got to move, so this year. We're ready this year."
"Last year we were just trying to figure everything out---really not knowing what to do. This year we know the plays, what the coaches expect, and we're just flying around on both sides of the ball," added sophomore running back Romar Morris.
With a fast tempo one of the cornerstones of the spread offense, UNC won't be able to rely on just one running back to carry them through, which means the backs as a whole are preparing to go as hard as they can on those plays they're in, knowing that there's a capable backup waiting to take their place if they get winded.
"At this running back position in this offense, I don't think it's really possible to have one running back because we go so fast and we get tired. Everybody gets tired. We just need more than one, two, or three running backs to run this offense at a smooth pace," said Morris.
"Some of my personal goals are just to be able to last, you know. Four, five, six plays in a row is the tempo we run," added senior A.J. Blue.
UNC is down a quarterback this spring without the presence of Marquise Williams, but they've got a stable leader in three-year starter Bryn Renner, as well as a couple of young guys in Kanler Coker and Mitch Trubisky, all looking to improve and get more familiar within the spread.
"I think it's huge (coming into this spring), because (there was the offseason) getting to watch film of the opponents we played last year," said Renner. "It's the same scheme. I think that's going to be big as we move along. It's always fun to get back out here and throw the ball around a little bit and just get some practice in."
"He (Renner) can get much better. He knows that," added Fedora. "Bryn started really catching fire about the last five games of the season when he really started getting a feel. And I would say (the first spring practices) the way he came back, he picked up right where he left off."
For Renner, there's always something to improve. He's never happy where he's at.
But having several returning pass catchers to aid his growth this spring should be invaluable for him as he prepares for his senior year. As a group they're all adjusting to the speed and tempo of the offense, and elevating themselves within the scheme.
"I think having Quinshad Davis back is going to be huge, and then having Eric Ebron healthy for the fall, and guys like Jack Tabb, experience on the outside, we're going to have a lot of fun out there."
"I've gotten a lot better. I threw seven interceptions (a season ago)," Renner added. "I can make better strides with my footwork, and I can do better in all my areas."
While it's naturally critical for the members of the North Carolina offense to make strides with the tempo of practices and the offense as a whole, it's also incumbent on members of the Tar Heel defense to step up their rhythm and timing as well.
Going up against the spread every day in practice, UNC's defenders have no choice but to pick up their own pace and elevate their level of intensity this spring.
"I felt like we were keeping up with the tempo of the offense better than what we did last spring and last training camp. I think we're farther along in that phase," said senior defensive end Kareem Martin.
Martin cited the pre-spring 'Blue Dawn' workouts as essential for the Tar Heels in developing critical stamina in order to keep up with the mile-a-minute pace UNC is employing.
"Blue Dawn, it's the toughest conditioning period we have. Worse than summer. But I felt like this year we were more prepared coming out of winter conditioning," said Martin.
"You could tell how Blue Dawn has really helped us. I wasn't as tired (last week) as opposed to last year, where I was still dead-tired the first practice of spring. I feel like Blue Dawn was a lot harder this year, and it definitely helped us out the first day allowing the defense to run around and keep up with that fast tempo of the offense."
Martin and the rest of the UNC defense got further help adjusting to the speed and tempo of Carolina's offense by watching film and studying their assignments and responsibilities throughout the winter.
"This offseason, the defense took it upon ourselves to watch film every day," Martin said. "We were meeting more often this offseason trying to get the defense down. This is our second year going into the (4-2-5) defense, and we really need to be crisp, because they're going to add some new things. I think we'll really get to see the full potential of this defense after the spring."
Still another thing that's helping Martin and the rest of the defense move around the spring is the fact that after a long 2012 season, they've had several weeks to recharge their batteries, get their legs back underneath them, and come back to practice fresh.
Nobody can go full speed when they're tired and banged up, so the goal from Carolina's standpoint is that they can work out this spring at a high pace without anybody going down.
"Individually I've gotten stronger over the winter. I'm healthy now," Martin said. "At the end of the season everybody was banged up. Now I'm able to move around a lot better than I was at the time. And I'm just trying to work on my craft, you know. Work on pass rushing, run stopping, and just trying to hone my skills."
For the Tar Heel players, answering questions about offseason conditioning and keeping up with the tempo desired by the coaches sure beats the alternative----answering more of the tired questions about the previous regime and the NCAA.
"It's a relief (talking about other stuff), because that's been the first question we've answered for a while now," Renner said. "Just being able to have a bowl game opportunity this year, and hopefully have a good season, it's a big relief for our program."