In defense of Fedora's defense
Posted September 11, 2013
It’s no big secret that Larry Fedora is a mostly offensive-minded coach -- his career track tells us so. Every one of his teams has averaged over 30 points per game and half of them have finished in the top 20 nationally in total offense.
In just one season, Fedora took a program that, in Butch Davis’ final year, averaged only 25 ppg to averaging over 40 ppg while under NCAA sanctions. Even without his own recruits, the man knows how to score points.
After all, this is why Fedora was hired at UNC. And he’s performed phenomenally in that department, setting 35 offensive records for the school in his first season at Chapel Hill. As far as an exciting offense goes, the head coach has no doubt held up his end of the bargain.
Last fall, his offense even contributed to the highest scoring game in ACC history.
The only problem with that: his defense also contributed to the highest scoring game in ACC history.
Georgia Tech hung 68 points on the “4-2-5” setup -- a scheme that sounds more like a game of hopscotch than an actual defense. Fedora’s squad gave up more points to the Yellow Jackets than Roy Williams did on the hard court last season. Seriously. And outings like that weren’t exactly an anomaly.
In spite of this, Fedora has, for the most part, sidestepped criticism of the 4-2-5 and remains a hot commodity by consistently winning football games (he was reportedly offered, and nearly accepted, the head position at one of the highest paying jobs in the nation last year – Tennessee).
Much of this positive perception has to do with the sheer genius of Fedora’s defensive scheme — a system based on secrecy, deception, and most importantly, confusion. But it’s not what you’re thinking. The success of the 4-2-5 isn’t as a result of confusing the opposing offense, but rather by dumbfounding what can often be a greater enemy: the fans and media.
Think about it. If you only halfway understand what someone’s doing, it’s that much harder to directly criticize — like whatever the heck it is that Lady Gaga does.
It starts with the name, ‘the 4-2-5,’ which has been described as a hybrid of the standard 4-3 but probably sounds more like a shady Vegas table game to most sports fans. The scheme takes the 4-3 and adds a more mobile lineman in the front four (who can cover) and a more mobile linebacker in the middle (creating the fifth in the secondary). The mobile lineman can line up in a stance against bigger teams and drop back as a linebacker against spread offenses.
That explanation isn’t particularly confusing, so Fedora went ahead and formally named this position the “Bandit” to make sure it was nonetheless.
You can’t really blame Fedora for making up his own positions, since he doesn’t have any defensive players talented enough to play normal positions.
While he has had some success with the “Bandit” (starter Norkeithus Otis is currently 2nd in the nation in total sacks), the “Ram”, who makes up the hybrid linebacker/cornerback, has definitely seen less. The Heels’ secondary gave up a 65-yard touchdown pass in Columbia two weeks ago which seemingly took them out of the game on just the third play from scrimmage.
We can’t be sure if that play was directly the fault of the “Ram” — but that’s the point. Analysts seem just as confused as Fedora’s secondary, looking around at each other dazed after another touchdown.
In all likelihood, the “Ram” will be the toughest position for UNC to consistently fill with the 4-2-5. A solid nickel/coverage back that has no fear of running plays is not an easy find.
But in defense of Fedora’s defense, the man still has always found a way to win football games. He’s won more contests in every subsequent season he’s coached at a school, and in his first season at UNC has already matched Butch Davis’ record of eight victories.
With the evolution of pass-happy, up-tempo football, “Defense wins championships” is becoming outdated to say the least. But it’s also no coincidence that Nick Saban’s back-to-back national titles have both come with the nation’s top-ranked defense.
In order to hang with the powerhouses in the SEC — or to keep football powerhouses like Duke from hanging 500 yards on your team like they did to UNC last October — Fedora is eventually going to have to get some stops to go along with his scoring.
It will be interesting to see how long Fedora’s 4-2-5 can last. Granted, the coach needs some time to recruit players geared for his system, but if his Tar Heels keep giving up 400-plus yards per game, he’ll have to hope the media and his own fan base don’t figure that system out beforehand. If not, he’ll have a lot more to answer for than just double kickoffs.