"Don't Mess This Up"

My one-day stint as a Carolina and Duke Football Recruit

It’s no secret that UNC and Duke squabble over basketball recruits. From Michael Jordan to Jason Williams, each school has coveted its neighbor’s latest gem.

But that’s old news. What about the other side of the equation? What about a prospect’s fight for the affectations of a revenue sport at either school? That I can tell you, because I’ve spent a day in the life of a football recruit for each program. Literally. One day.

In the fall of 2006, John Bunting and Ted Roof’s football programs at UNC and Duke, respectively, entered their death throes. Bunting would be axed at the end of the year despite prevailing in a 45-44 classic over the Blue Devils, while Roof would follow suit soon after falling to Butch Davis’ Heels the next fall in Chapel Hill.

Amidst this chaos, I quietly blipped onto a few area radars, and even more quietly bowed out. Asking an unpopular coach’s staff to recruit you is akin to playing in the band aboard the sinking Titanic; it’s a nice gesture that you’re interested in smoothing the transition, but no one’s really got time to hear you out.

Especially if you’re a kicker in the Barth era.

Specialists aren’t exactly a prized gem in a college scout’s recruiting board. We are allegedly entrusted with putting a ball through two long pieces of metal, but the job is really about what you aren’t supposed to do. Unlike quarterbacks, wide receivers or returners, we aren’t given measurable goals of yardage or points. Our goals are negative and contingent upon opportunity: don’t get it blocked; don’t kick it out of bounds; don’t mess this up. Imagine being a spot basketball player whose only job was to shoot other people’s free throws. High pressure, no reward.

So, why even try to kick? Moreover, why even try to kick at long-struggling programs continually playing second fiddle to their respective basketball juggernauts?

Like so many drawn to admire the athletic prowess of these two schools, the answer was convenience.

Personally, picking up the art of placekicking as a soccer player was an almost pre-destined trope. A lifelong witness of Triangle-oriented rivalries, the thought of playing for either shade of blue was beyond appealing. Kenan and Wallace Wade being 13 and 27 minutes from my house, respectively, was too good to pass up.

While I began kicking between two trees in my front yard, I honed what little skill I had in these two historic venues. I inched my first 60-yarder over the bar from just a few feet to the side of the Gothic “D” logo; I hit my first “spiraled” punt with my toes dug into the crisp white paint of the iconic, interlocking “NC”. I even had my first brush with the law in Chapel Hill, being chased out of the stadium after being caught climbing over a locked gate. (To all you looking to find a point of entry, there’s still a weak spot under a small Maple, between the Northwest gate and the University Health Building; it’s a rectangular-but-hospitable gap between the railing and the roof of a sidehouse used to store concession equipment.)

Yet for all the desperate antics, hoping each time that a coach would catch me instead of a DPS official, I only made a brief appearance on each school’s recruiting board through an unorchestrated coincidence.

For Coach Bunting, I was just another face in the crowd at each summer football camp; just another tape at the bottom of the video pile. I was never called back to the end-of-camp meetings where the top prospects were notified of the staff’s interest; never called to talk about the film I’d sent in. About the closest I’d ever come to a placekicking spot on the roster was standing next to Tampa Bay standout and former Carolina great Connor Barth (he of Miami-beating, 2004 field-storming fame) for a quick picture and handshake.

Needless to say, I was lucky to find that an assistant coach (whose privacy I’ll respect) for my high school knew a special teams coach at Carolina. He had a scout sent out to see me in action against that August. For all the fence-jumping, my best chance at an in with the program had been barely ten feet away from me each summer, grimacing at my every shank.

After two blocked field goals and an embarrassing kickoff returned for a touchdown, I can’t say I blamed Bunting’s staff for not calling after a train wreck of a first date. Neither can I argue with Davis’ call to go with Connor’s younger brother, Casey, a fantastic competitor who eventually eclipsed even his older brother’s star (despite several injuries).

Roof’s limited period of interest seems even more far-fetched. I met him the day after his (eventual) last game in 2007 while dining with a friend at the Red Robin on 15-501 near New Hope Commons. He’d just been sabotaged by his own special teams, relying on two different kickers who provided two makeable misses in an overtime loss. Needless to say, I caught him in the most perfect of circumstances.

Keeping my powder-blue Schadenfreude behind a façade of conciliation, I offered my services, and he offered terms: if I sent in my film (and he was still the coach the next day), he’d offer me an opportunity to try out as a walk-on the next year.

The next day, just as mysteriously as he had entered the Triangle coaching game, Roof was gone. Again, I was on the outside looking in.

After deciding to run track for Carolina, these two opportunities have more and more seemed far less notable as points when my life could have improved. Having the honor to run with another “renaissance athlete” who also wanted to kick in college, I’ve seen that picking your battles can prove strangely venerating despite seeming like conceding defeat. Ranked even higher on the national high school recruiting sites than I was, this individual (now a coach for Syracuse’s Track and Field team whose privacy I’ll also respect) chose to run track at Carolina over kicking for one of the few schools in the nation – Penn State – whose football program is recovering from more turbulence than ours.

Despite all the grief the football programs at Duke and UNC have gotten – Duke for its losing and UNC for its NCAA issues – these programs will always attract more recruits than they have time for. Want to make it past a one-night stand with either program? It’ll depend on much more than your own capabilities. Take it from me – if you want it badly enough you’ll get a chance at least, no matter how improbable it seems. Instead, your success will hinge on the connections you make, and how you handle the opportunities you’re presented. I haphazardly stumbled across the contacts, but needlessly squandered the chances.

The trick is simple, yet oh-so-difficult, like any kicking coach will tell you:

Just don’t mess it up.

You can follow Jeremy on Twitter @JT_Gerlach.


Redemption Song

In dedicating yourself to a team as a fan, you enter into a marriage. You’re in it for better and for worse. Within the past two weeks, the Tar Heel faithful have experienced either side of this coin. From a fan’s standpoint, last Saturday in Wallace Wade Stadium represented the lowest of lows, as those of us clad in the fairer of the two blues were forced to look on while the dookies ransacked the victory bell for just the second time in the last 23 years. “Tough” doesn’t begin to describe the loss suffered in Durham.

This weekend, however, the shoe was so graciously moved to the other foot. Rather than allowing last week’s defeat to stifle their enthusiasm, the Heels brought an energy level into Saturday’s matchup against the wolfpack that was absolutely electric. When the team surged out of the smoke-filled tunnel decked out in all navy and fitted with brand new chrome helmets the Tar Pit went ballistic.

By the time the smoke had cleared, the scoreboard read: Carolina  15 NC State 0. The scoring pace during the first fifteen minutes of play was so blistering, in fact, that UNC’s 25 first quarter points had the student section chanting “We want biscuits!” (alluding to the Bojangles promotion during basketball season in which discounted biscuits are given away every time the hardwood Heels reach the century mark).

But then, of course, we all know what happened during the second and third quarters. The Tar Heel offense sputtered and the Carolina defensive secondary seemed entirely non-existent, conceding deep throw after deep throw to N.C. State quarterback Mike Glennon. After finally reacquiring a bit of offensive rhythm in the fourth quarter and knotting the score up at 35, the Heels found themselves fielding a wolfpack punt with just 30 seconds left on the game clock.

Then lightning struck.

Gio Bernard permanently cemented his place in Carolina lore by taking the kick 74 yards to the house. Streaking out of the back of the end zone, Gio was very nearly enveloped whole by screaming fans while performing the Tar Pit equivalent of the Lambeau Leap.

 In all my years as a fan, I can’t remember another moment during which Kenan Stadium was so alive. Perhaps the last-second game-winning field goal from Connor Barth in 2004 against a powerhouse Miami squad was comparable, but I think even that pales in comparison to what was experienced Saturday.

It’s not that Saturday’s game was a bigger win for the program than the Miami game in 2004 (though some may debate me on this point): the win was simply more gratifying. Why? Because it came against the wuffies, of course.

The N.C. State wolfpack: the group of fans delusional enough to believe that North Carolina is anything other than the Tar Heel State.

The fans who think this passes as an intimidating gesture.

The fans who have happily embraced this classy gent as their poster-child.

I mean really. Is it hard to understand why Carolina fans were so overjoyed to end a five-game losing streak to those guys? In his first outing against these in-state “rivals”, Coach Fedora finally released Tar Heels everywhere from the embarrassment of defeat at the hands of a lesser opponent. I can only hope Fedora’s new emphasis on locking down the state will ensure that we fans rarely have to experience the injustice of having to answer to that nuisance of a school down the road.

And here I’ll end my spiel, lest the wuffies take what little acknowledgment I’ve given them and attempt to construe it as an indication of their own importance. Because despite whatever efforts Larry Fedora may undertake to change the student culture here in Chapel Hill, one refrain will ring true above all others: “Go to hell duke!”


Gio An 'Uncommon' Back

December 16, 2001 was a frigid day in Chicago and the Bears were playing the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Soldier Field.  It was my first full season as Offensive Coordinator and our record was 9-3 at the time (we finished the year at 13-3).  We were pounding the Bucs pretty good behind our mammoth offensive line.  Pro bowlers Olin Kruetz and “Big Cat” Williams cleared the way for the NFL Rookie of the Year, Anthony “A-Train” Thomas.  At halftime of that game our Head Coach, Dick Jauron, was listening to me talk to the staff about pass protections and patterns that I thought would work well in the second half.  He came over to me with a stat sheet that said “A-Train” was averaging over 7 yard per carry in the first half.  I told him we had some nice play action passes coming up.  He looked me in the eye said very clearly, “John, I suggest you keep handing it to Anthony until that average goes down.”  The “A-Train” finished the game with 31 carries for 173 yards in a 27-3 Bears win.

I thought of that story when I saw Gio Bernard’s stats last week versus Va. Tech.  He averaged 11.4 yard on 23 carries. I pictured Dick Jauron wondering why he didn’t carry it more.
In my first article of the season I said that UNC would be undefeated in games Gio had 25 carries or more.  While he fell two short last week I stand by my prediction.  I have coached for 21 years, including 12 in the NFL, and have been around some great running backs.  Gio Bernard is uncommon.  He combines finishing speed with rare lateral quickness.  He has great strength, toughness, and intelligence.  If he has endurance and durability the second half of the season he could be an All-American. 
Endurance and durability in football players are qualities that can often be overlooked by the average fan.  The first question a good pro scout asks is how many games and practices has a player missed over his college career.  The best ability is availability.  With Gio available and running behind a mammoth offensive line, UNC will be tough to beat in the second half of the season. 
Duke v. Va. Tech
Having good game film to study is an important part of putting a game plan together.  As Duke coaches prepare for Va. Tech, they will study two weeks of spread offenses attacking the Va. Tech defense.  Cincinnati and UNC both had success against the Hokies and I am certain those game films have generated great ideas for Duke OC Kurt Roper and his staff.  Conversely, Va. Tech is usually pretty good at putting out fires and for them to be sitting at 3-3 right now is unusual.  I look forward to what Hokie DC Bud Foster will do schematically to douse the flames. 
The last thing a coordinator wants out in the world of video is a template for how to attack their schemes.  I am certain video coordinators from across the country are calling one another trying to get the last two games against the Va. Tech defense for their coaching staffs to study. 
When I coached at UNC I thought it was an advantage to play Duke late in the season.  I thought we had greater depth than they did, and by the last game of the season neither of us was playing with our starting 22. 
A team’s endurance and durability become evident in a number of ways during the season.   Within a drive they show up on about play ten.  One side of the ball is starting to cave as the other gets stronger.  Within a game they show up in the second half box score.  Within a season they show up at about the half-way point.  Some teams talk about how banged up they are and make excuses, others endure and keep fighting until they get players back.  Duke has demonstrated drive, game, and seasonal endurance.
Drive endurance was evident last week versus UVa.  Duke finished six drives with TDs. While I love Connor and Casey Barth, I regularly told them I hoped they only kicked extra points each week.  Converting red zone opportunities into touchdowns often has more to do with endurance and durability than it does schemes.  On the tenth play of a drive the team with greater mental and physical endurance and durability will execute better when tired. 
The Blue Devils outscored UVa 28-0 in the second half, a sure sign of Duke’s game endurance.
So far Duke has demonstrated seasonal endurance and durability, too.  Their team has had opportunities to make excuses for some uncommon injuries that happened in the off season. But their next man up attitude was evident to me than last week at the QB position.  I think Sean Renfree is a fine QB.  And when he went down, Anthony Boone played effectively and he went 18-31 with 4 touchdown passes.  Nothing gets an injured player back into playing shape like his back up going in and playing great. 
NC State – bye
When focusing on endurance and durability, the State win versus FSU last week is a good place to finish.  The Pack outscored the Noles 17-0 in the second half.  FSU’s second half pass rush was not nearly what it was to begin the game.  Mike Glennon worked the pocket beautifully behind a patchwork offensive line.  And in the fourth quarter, he engineered two memorable touchdown drives for the win. 
This week State has a bye.  There were three things I wanted to accomplish as a coach on an off week.  First, I wanted to do a self scout.  I would newsreel our games from the season so far and ask myself if we were forging the identity that we hoped for going into the season. 
Second, our staff would recruit.  As a coordinator it is hard to recruit in season as well as I would have liked.  I would watch a lot of high school film and talk on the phone with high school coaches and with players who we were recruiting. 
Third, and most importantly, I would try to rest.  The endurance and durability of the coaching staff is important too and often neglected.  In the coaching world there is a mentality that rest is for the weak.  But the older I get, the more I realize how much rest and sleep sharpens my senses as a coach.  It is hard to create a game plan and make snap decisions on game day when you are sleep deprived.