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July 23, 2013One way or another, Larry Fedora says he'll use being ranked to finish third in the Atlantic Coast Conference Coastal Division as a motivating factor for his North Carolina football team.
The Tar Heels lost key players on both the offensive and defensive line to graduation and the NFL draft - a void Fedora says he loses sleep over at night - and there's a frequently-discussed hole to fill left by the departure of a certain running back.
But the tools that equip the 2013 UNC team, the opportunities available to the squad and the atmosphere that surrounds it have the Tar Heels' second-year head coach in a comfortable position, despite losses from last year's roster and a mediocre pre-season placement by the media.
Being in the their second season using a fast-paced spread offense is one of the biggest tools that the Tar Heels will be able to use to their advantage this season, the settled style of play on both sides of the ball is something Fedora witnessed in the spring season alone.
"They understand the scheme now, they understand what's expected," he said of the defense. "So now what you get to see, is (that) guys aren't thinking all the time. Guys that are thinking about what to do, their feet aren't moving fast, they don't look athletic, they don't even look like football players sometimes. So now you're getting to see guys turn loose and just play football and just be more natural, so you're seeing their athleticism now."
And the North Carolina offense has already shown a similarly firm grasp on a playbook it was introduced to just over a year ago.
"Just going from one spring to the next spring, I can tell you this: we were a lot more efficient," Fedora said. "We got in a lot more plays, we were faster this spring than we were in the fall, and again that's familiarity, that's the guys understanding what's coming next, they understand what's expected from them."
A confident Bryn Renner adds to the steady development of the spread routine in a way that reflects what Fedora and quarterback coach Blake Anderson want to see from the senior.
For Renner, who has hold on the play of the spread offense, this season will be about settling into his role at the helm and proving his ability to make the right in-game decisions.
"He can make all the throws, he's making good decisions, it's now about managing our offense, managing our football team," Fedora said. "It's understanding ,'Ok, now when do I need to thread that needle, when do I need to force that throw, and when is it ok to punt?'"
In addition to having a veteran quarterback who says he is both comfortable and confident in his role, North Carolina brings back several players who will both grow in to roles following the guidance and examples of older players who have left the program and who will fill unexpected roles by position this season.
Running back is the only position Fedora says he has any real comfort with depth wise, but he does recognize several single players in many areas that expects a lot out of.
North Carolina will be figuring out in particular how newer offensive line members will mesh with veterans James Hurst and Russell Bodine in comparison to the way last year's now-professional players did.
"There's going to be some heartache there," Fedora said. "It's going to take some time for those guys to gel, but we've got guys on the back end that do have experience so they're going to have to carry us through that."
The cast that will help carry UNC through the adversity includes the familiar names Landon Turner, T.J. Thorpe, Thomas Hibbard, A.J. Blue, Romar Morris, Kareem Martin, Quinshad Davis and Tim Jackson - per Fedora's mention - who work together this season using now-familiar tools to seize opportunities they didn't have last year.
Facing a top-ten opponent in the Week One game against South Carolina means a lot more for UNC than just a chance to earn a win - although Fedora recognizes wins, not schedule difficulty as the factor that will weigh post heavily in any post-season bowl matchup decisions -as it offers the Tar Heels a chance to start the season with an image that Fedora and his staff have been driving since their arrival to Chapel Hill.
"Every year we have a first game, and the great thing about it is it's a great football team," he said. "We have the opportunity to continue to change the culture at Carolina. We got to play smart, we got to play fast and we got to play physical. If we do those three things, we can win our league, there's no doubt about it. But we've got to do it week in and week out."
As the culture of North Carolina football changes in the program's first season in four years to not be strapped with NCAA investigations, the Tar Heels are seeing chances of a bowl game from the most realistic position since Butch Davis left.
Goals that include a Coastal Division Title and bowl game appearance are in reach and giving UNC extra motivation, on top of the hanging fact that North Carolina hasn't claimed an ACC title since 1980.
"Those kinds of things are what get you out of bed in the morning, when you've got to go and you've got to grind," Fedora said. "Those are the types of things that motivate kids, so I think they're excited about the opportunity to play for a Coastal Division Championship. If we do that then we've got a chance."
And that chance will be enough, Fedora hopes, to drive a team that re-did the fundamentals last season. In addition to having learned and attempted to master a brand new scheme, last year's team went back to basics and evaluated why - since no number of wins could earn a championship, bragging rights, or a bowl appearance - it played the game.
"You go back and you dig deep," Fedora said. "And you figure out 'Why am I playing the game of football, why do I love putting on a uniform, why do I love the grind of the offseason, the summers?,'
You love it because you love playing the game, so that was good for us last year."
"This (opportunity to play for more) is just an added bonus for these guys."