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April 18, 2012
Spring breeds hope
Out of the dark, hazy mist of NCAA probation, and the cloud of humiliation that ensued, UNC football and its new coaches emerged into the sunlight of a Carolina spring day on Saturday.
The players hustled to entertain an estimated crowd of 17,000 fans, while also trying to impress their new coaches.
A new day has dawned for Tar Heel football. The players call it Blue Dawn.
The team is led by its first-year head coach Larry Fedora, who is full of energy and enthusiasm. He is a disciplinarian when necessary, a teacher at other times, a cheerleader and supporter when such a need arises.
His baseline is pure, genuine enthusiasm.
"He's a real fun guy, but at the same time he can get in your face," sophomore running back Giovani Bernard said. "He's bringing that spirit to this team and to this organization. We're happy to have him here."
Senior linebacker Kevin Reddick said that Fedora and his coaching staff have made an immediate impact in every way during their short time on campus.
"I feel like he has helped out in a lot of ways," Reddick said. "He is so hyped, very enthused and respected. He has intensity throughout the entire practice. He's good for us because it's something new for the program. A lot of guys are not used to it.
"I think guys are buying in because it's something new," Reddick said. "We had a little team meeting before Coach Fedora got here. I said, 'This is something new. Don't sit back. Let's go out here and make it happen. Don't sit back and keep pouting because we have new coaches.'
"Some of these younger guys are going to be here for several years, so get used to the coaches and buy into the program," Reddick said.
So when the spring game arrived and the time came to reveal what they have learned, the team gave the fans reason to be excited for the start of a new season and the beginning of a different era.
As for the players, they were delighted to play football again after the punishment from the NCAA had finally been announced. The kids were anxious to show the fans what they have learned in a short period of time and give them taste of what is to come.
"It was a relief," junior quarterback Bryn Renner said. "The fans have always been loyal to us. It was a great showing. We just wanted to put on a good show. We appreciate their support."
Renner is undoubtedly the man to run this offense. He is a gifted quarterback and a diligent worker. He is still recovering from off-season ankle surgery as well. His determination and drive are in themselves a strong form of leadership.
"[The ankle] is probably about 75 percent," said Renner, who went 23-of-28 for 295 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions.
"I'm hoping to get to 100 percent during the off-season, when I can rehab and lift and get bigger and stronger," Renner said. "It's just a little soreness. The trainer said it was going to be sore. I was rushing to get back for spring ball. So I really didn't have a full chance to rehabilitate."
Saturday's brief debut of the new offense, defense and special teams provided glimpse of the system.
One of his positive legacies from the Butch Davis era is the depth of outstanding talent Fedora and his staff inherited.
On offense, for example, Renner has many tools with which to work.
Running backs Giovani Bernard, Romar Morris and A.J. Blue each displayed unique and powerful talents for the new spread offense.
The combination of Bernard and Morris will produce many exciting plays. The scheme serves their abilities well. Both possess quick busts and overall speed to go with the skill to cut and maneuver through a swarm of opposing defenders.
"It's awesome to have a one-two punch like them," Renner said. "Last year we had Ryan [Houston] and Gio. It was like lightning and thunder.
"Now it's like two lightnings," Renner said. "It's awesome. Romar has a lot of speed and a lot of potential."
If there is a thunder, it's Blue, who is athletic but also powerful.
Benard's various attributes make him a natural fit for the spread offense. Meanwhile, Morris is emerging quickly from the hibernation of redshirting.
"Romar is getting more consistent," Fedora said. "You watch what he did. He has got some acceleration. He's got some explosiveness. His vision is getting better. And the thing I really like is that he catches the ball really well."
Then there is tight end Eric Ebron. At 6 feet 4 and 230 pounds, his large, strong hands and God-given speed elevate him beyond the mold of a normal tight end.
Offensive coordinator Blake Anderson is clearly impressed with Ebron.
"When you start talking about recruiting tight ends with this system, he is exactly what you look for," Anderson said. "Physically, he is put together enough that he can take a guy on at point of attack.
"He has really good hands," Anderson said. "He's got the speed of more of a wideout. That is exactly what we're looking for."
Ebron adds courage to physical skill.
"He took two balls out of the air that were tough to catch," Anderson said, "and he played in the middle of the field where a lot of guys are not willing to play."
These individual players are just a few of the weapons Renner has at his disposal. Another is the pace of the offense itself. Fedora will appear much like basketball coach Roy Williams on the sideline, urging his team to take advantage of every opportunity to run and beat the defense.
"We're trying to just get to the ball and run a play," Renner said. "One thing we're going to use to our advantage is we're going to snap the ball right when it is put down. Defenses are going to have to adjust to us."
Of course, it all begins in practice. Fedora and the coaching staff preached the gospel of fitness and speed throughout the spring.
"We met the objectives we set going into spring," Fedora said. "One was we had to have a good understanding of our base, offensive, defense and special teams, the fundamentals. We did that. I think our guys understand the base concepts.
"Two was to learn how to practice the new Carolina Way, the way we need to practice with energy and passion and enthusiasm throughout a practice," Fedora said. "We're not there yet. Our work capacity is not where it needs to be. You have to be in better condition to be able to do that. These guys will work hard over the summer to get that in."