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September 13, 2013

Improvements on the Ground

Much, of course, is said about Georgia Tech's triple-option rushing attack and how difficult it can be to defend it, but for the first 14 games of the Larry Fedora era in Chapel Hill, the North Carolina running game hasn't exactly been chicken feed.

Of course, Giovani Bernard and a veteran offensive line had a great deal to do with last year's success.

And with a rebuilding group up front as well as new lead backs in A.J. Blue and Romar Morris, there were expected to be some growing pains in that area this fall.

"I think you've got four new parts. I think you've got three O-linemen and a tailback that you've taken out of the mix, who were all pretty good. I just think we have some growing pains, really, to get those four parts to work together. We're going to have some growing pains, and we've got to work through them," said offensive coordinator Blake Anderson.

UNC ran for over 2,300 yards as a team last season, an average of 193.8 per game, while in Saturday's home-opening triumph over Middle Tennessee, the running game produced 134 rushing yards---not quite a third less than the average of last season.

Against South Carolina in the opener in Columbia things were even worse on the ground statistically---99 rushing yards on 36 carries---though against the Gamecocks there were some occasional flashes especially by Blue, who had 69 yards on 15 carries.

While lately he's been working to get back to full strength after a training camp leg injury, Blue knows he can provide the critical bruising, tough yardage for the Tar Heels.

"That's what I do---I take pride in doing it (getting the tough yards). We just took pride in doing that," said Blue after last week's game. "Physically I feel 100 percent. I'm still getting my feet up under me. The South Carolina game was actually the first time I had run full speed since the injury. But I feel I'm getting back together now. I feel good."

Naturally, the bigger the play, the more the yards. And the more big plays a team has, the more likely they're going to score, and of course have higher production totals.

"Any time you run the ball effectively it creates seams in the passing game, whether it's the tight end or any of them," said Coach Anderson. "If you've got to add guys to the box to stop the run, the passing game becomes better. The play-action game becomes better. So we have always made it a point to make people stop the run. We're not going to change that."

"We're going to get back to the running game," the UNC offensive coordinator continued. "We're going to be good at running the ball. It may look different than it has in the past. We'll find what fits us and the guys we've got."

So far this fall UNC only has one rushing play of 20 or more yards---Morris's 26-yard touchdown run last Saturday---so clearly the challenge is to break off more big plays in the coming weeks.

"We just have to create more big plays. We have to create more big plays downfield and make the second and third level (defenders) miss (tackles). Those are the things that we've been working on in practice," Morris told us.

While a lot has been said about the need for UNC's defensive players to wrap up and tackle better, the Tar Heel running backs have to do a better job of taking on tacklers, shedding them and moving upfield.

And in Blue's words, they have to do a better job of hitting the holes.

He says they're there, despite the presence of newcomers up front including left guard Caleb Peterson and right tackle Jon Heck, and he and the other backs need to hit those seams properly while breaking tackles better.

"I was just so antsy and wanted to get downfield (against Middle Tennessee), and I took my gaps wider than I was supposed to. Just running the right track (is an important key for improving). I know a couple of times I got off-track."

"I think another thing for the running game is we need to break more tackles. I take pride in bruising the defenders, but I also think I need to take a little more pride in breaking more tackles and gaining more yards after contact."

"They're all three great backs," added quarterback Bryn Renner of Blue, Morris, and true freshman Khris Francis. "I think we've just got to find the hole and fit on blocks. I don't know what it is."

"I'm seeing a hole there," Renner continued. "We've just got to fit it up in there and see what happens. But we can definitely improve. I think the bye week is going to help get some guys healthy and hopefully help us move the ball a little bit more."

For head coach Larry Fedora, Saturday's relative inability to break off big plays or have a huge rushing output was as much as mystery as anyone else.

"I'll be honest with you. That was the biggest mystery to me. The entire game I'm trying to figure out why we're not running the ball effectively. I'm sure it's a combination of a lot of things," said Fedora. "I don't think it's just one guy that's not doing his job. That would be easy to see. It's just a multitude of things. I think it's one guy here on a play. Another guy on the next play. And a lot of that has to do with youth up front, and that experience of knowing."

Part of what Fedora sees as the problem is a group of players learning how to communicate with one another and making critical adjustments on the fly, with only a split second most of the time between the adjustment and the snap of the ball.

"Sometimes you're going to have to make an adjustment without being able to communicate," Fedora replied. "And having multiple reps with each other, you know those adjustments are going to be made on the snap. And those aren't happening right now."

It's also really important for UNC, especially in upcoming games such as the Georgia Tech showdown and challenging matchups against East Carolina and at Virginia Tech, to play a full four quarters.

After breaking out to a 23-0 hafltime lead against Middle Tennessee the Tar Heels admittedly took its collective foot off the gas a little bit, which is something they can't afford to do against the Yellow Jackets or anyone else on its upcoming schedule.

"I think it was just mental lapses (against MTSU)," said Morris, trying to explain why UNC didn't have more rushing yardage. "We just weren't playing as hard as we could in the second half. Mentally it's not going out there and executing in the second half. We've got to do better, and we'll do better this coming game (against Georgia Tech). "

"I don't think we had the same energy level (rushing the ball in the second half), and that was disappointing," said Coach Fedora. "I know it had to be hard on Blake (Anderson) with the play calls, because you just never felt it got into any type of rhythm on offense. And a lot of that is because we didn't run the ball effectively today."

It's clear that nobody has truly established himself as the No. 1 back in the Tar Heel stable, which was evident as Blue, Morris, and Francis all three got exactly 10 carries in the win over Middle Tennessee. Their production totals were remarkably similar, as Morris finished with 46 yards, Blue 44, and Francis 42.

Morris had 15 carries against South Carolina, giving him a team-high 25 rushing attempts so far, while Blue had eight touches against the Gamecocks.

Combined, Blue, Morris, and Francis have 238 rushing yards---an average of 119 per game.

That's a far cry from that 193.8 yard average of a year ago, but keep in mind that it's early, and UNC has played a couple of pretty good football teams so far this fall.

The Tar Heels have a chance to get back on track on the ground against Georgia Tech, and in doing so perhaps even overshadow what the Yellow Jackets do best.

Even if it takes every guy, or if one guy emerges as the lead back, Coach Anderson and the rest of the Tar Heels seem committed to doing whatever it takes to produce more rushing yardage.

"I think we kind of thought it would be a little bit of a committee (at running back)," said Anderson. "Some of that's due to guys not being completely healthy. And some of that's Khris being a freshman, and not wanting to push him before he's ready."

"I would like to see one of those guys or two of those guys really start stepping out and being comfortable so it's maybe less of that, but we're kind of prepared for either way it goes---if it takes all three or four then that's what it takes---we'll just do the best we can with it."


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