Film Study: Mix of Spread and Power in UNC’s Offense


A film study from the UNC vs. South Carolina game on how UNC Football uses horizontal runs and passes to set up power runs up the middle. 

The first play the North Carolina Tar Heels ran from scrimmage against South Carolina last Thursday night was a simple tap pass to Ryan Switzer that went for 15 yards and a quick first down.

(You may have to click on the ESPN logo and drag on the right to see the full GIF)

Larry Fedora and his staff did not pick this first play call out of a hat. This was a calculated move by the offensive staff that set the groundwork for a lot of what the Tar Heels try to do on offense — spread the defense out and then pound the ball right down their throats.

First off, about the play call. I believe this is a close cousin to the famous play that West Virginia used to beat Clemson in the Orange Bowl. This beauty of this play is in its simplicity. Ryan Switzer runs at full speed before the snap and doesn’t have to stop running to get the ball from Marquise Williams. Switzer uses his speed to get around the edge of the defense and gain 15 yards.

Why call this play first? This is the first of many chess moves that Fedora’s offensive staff have lined up in their gameplan to defeat South Carolina’s defense. The idea here is to get the defense to defend the entire field, leaving the defense spread thinner in the interior.

Spreading the field is a key tenet of up-tempo, pass heavy offenses, and different teams try to thin the defense out in different ways. Some teams line their wide receivers up ridiculously far away from the offensive line, taking advantage of the full width of the field. Others, like the Tar Heels, use quick screens, outside runs and jet sweeps to force the defense to play sideline to sideline.

Here is an example of a quick screen pass that spreads the defense out and gains a lot of yards.

That’s about an easy of a throw as it gets for Marquise and a very easy first down. That Carolina trusts this play enough to run it on third and 10 late in the fourth quarter with the game on the line speaks to the faith that Fedora and co. have in this system.

Here is an example of an outside handoff that again spreads those linebackers out and forces them to play sideline to sideline.

This is again a pretty simple play call, but by leveraging the speed of Romar Morris, Carolina gets the edge here and picks up a nice gain.

The fun really starts when you start to toy with the defense by using fakes and counters. Watch this next play carefully…

Switzer sprints from the far side of the field to behind the quarterback, taking the man guarding him with him. That opens up a huge area of the field for Elijah Hood, who takes the ball and swings to the outside for a nice gain.

All these horizontal runs gain yards but are also set ups for the meat of the offense that UNC is trying to set up — just simple runs right up the middle.

This final play exemplifies how the horizontal runs pay off and help the Tar Heels pound the ball down the throat of the defense. Watch the linebacker, Skai Moore, highlighted by the white box.

(Same thing — may have to click and drag to the right on the GIF to see it all)

When Switzer goes in motion, that attracts the attention Moore, who jumps three steps to the left. The ball actually goes with Elijah Hood right up the middle of the defense. Hood is quick enough to take advantage of the gap created by the motion and by great blocking and gain nine or so yards.

Those three steps Skai Moore takes to the left is everything that the Tar Heel offense has been working towards. They are the result of good playcalling and scheme by the UNC offensive staff. Those three steps freeze Moore just long enough to allow for the big gain. Without Switzer going in motion, Moore probably jumps right in that gap and stops the run for a short gain. Instead, the Tar Heels get a big one on first and 10.

This is the intersection of spread concepts and power concepts within the Tar Heel offense. You spread the linebackers out with runs to the edge of the defense then hammer the ball up the middle, taking advantage of the extra space.

They say football is a game of inches. Good offenses create inches their own inches and leverage them for big gains.