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How Mack Brown’s UNC will take cues from both Clemson and Oklahoma

Structurally, the Heels are setting themselves up like two Playoff teams. There are worse examples to follow.

Texas v Oklahoma Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

You already know what Mack Brown’s going to look like like off the field in his new (old) job at North Carolina. There’ll be the folksy twang that will sound increasingly less Texan as the season goes on. There’ll be glad-handing, backslapping, and motivational tweeting.

But at some point, UNC’s gotta actually play. Coming off a 2-9 season, how will that look?

There is no Vince Young or Colt McCoy at North Carolina, and the sport’s changed. Brown at least looks like he’s trying to change with it.

At Texas, Brown was something of a schematic chameleon. There are plenty of coaches from Brown’s era whom you immediately identify with a certain scheme or style of play — Steve Spurrier with Fun N’ Gun, Tom Osborne with the triple option, Mike Leach with the air raid. But off the top of your head, do you know whether Brown was an offensive or defensive coordinator before he was a head coach? I’ll give you a second to think about it.

(Offensive. He was a receivers coach before that.)

Brown’s Texas offenses, coordinated by Greg Davis, ran the hell out of the ball. Ricky Williams won a Heisman. Vince Young won a national championship as UT’s primary ball- got carrier, and Colt McCoy came within a game of another one.

But the Horns didn’t look like today’s spread running teams. They didn’t lean as much on the zone read, instead getting a lot out of QB draws and scrambles, like on the most famous play of Young’s career:

So, where does Brown turn? He got his likely QB of the future in four-star Sam Howell, when he flipped him from Florida State late in the recruiting cycle. Recruiting services regard Howell as a pro-style passer, but his high school coach says Howell “really is a dual threat.”

Whoever UNC’s QB is, the best schematic hints are in the coaches Brown’s hired.

In one key way, it looks the the Heels are going to borrow from Clemson.

Enter offensive coordinator Phil Longo, who comes from Ole Miss, and defensive coordinator Jay Bateman, who comes from Army.

It seems to resemble Clemson’s setup under Dabo Swinney: install a folksy head coach as the head of the program and surround him with bulletproof coordinators to take care of the actual football.

It’s not to say Brown and Swinney don’t know what they’re doing on the whiteboard. But they get time to sell their program and have good, hands-on football minds to fall back on. Swinney’s greatest talent may be making you think his folksiness makes him less shrewd of a CEO.

Some head coaches are only as good as their staffs. Not every head guy can have an organizational setup to handle Nick Saban-level assistant churn.

Here’s where UNC is likely to borrow from another Playoff regular: Oklahoma. That starts on offense, but it doesn’t necessarily stop there.

One thing that’s clear is how Brown wants his offense to play.

“We’re going to be very similar to Oklahoma on offense,” Brown told reporters at the Kenan Football Center. “I told Coach Longo I want to score 50 points a game and have two Heisman Trophy quarterbacks back-to-back. I said that about three times and he said, ‘I got it, I heard it the first time.’

“… He started studying the Mike Leach tree a long time ago. We’re not going to be Mike Leach. And then he got to be very close friends with Kliff Kingsbury. And I like Kliff a lot. Then he’s taken what they did with the Oklahoma system with Lincoln Riley and he’s combined the power running game with a wide open passing attack. And that’s who we’ll be.”

Oklahoma is not an air raid team. It’s a power-running team that stretches the field vertically with air raid staples when it passes like four verticals and mesh. But the Sooners don’t look to pass first and pass only.

Longo’s offenses have air raid passing elements all over the place with a tiny playbook and asking receivers to make post-snap coverage reads — not just quarterbacks.

Longo also likes the orbit motion Oklahoma uses to set up RPOs ...

... as shown here by Longo’s Ole Miss against Alabama:

That above Ole Miss play is actually a triple-option guard/tackle counter run that OU has been using to run all over teams.

But what about on defense?

There is no better place than Chapel Hill to have a team that will play the defensive version of basketball on grass.

That term is typically reserved for offenses. The zone read is kind of like football’s version of the pick-and-roll, for instance. But defensive football can be basketball on grass, too. Back in 2015, the Warriors evolved what the mid-aughts Atlanta Hawks did, which was basically run out a bunch of 6’8 small forwards and let it ride. It proved to be the future of the NBA.

Here’s how Bateman describes his defense:

The one constant week-to-week: “Everyone is a blitzer,” says Bateman. “A kid is a defensive end—well, now he’s a linebacker, or a strong safety. How does a quarterback declare him? [Their offense will] start blocking guys that aren’t even rushing, and not block guys who are.” From this, Army employs six different blitzes, but Bateman runs them out of dozens of personnel packages, which he says forces offensive coordinators to spend twice the normal time in preparation.

Bateman says the biggest concern he’s heard from visiting NFL coaches about this kind of multiplicity is that it requires immense brain power from the safeties in charge of lining everyone up and from the corners memorizing the coverages. Bateman’s solution is to have his defense operate as a collection of grouped special forces. They use one-word calls, the first letter of which pertains to a specific position group, alerting players as to who is blitzing. Linebackers, for example, might be assigned an S-word—so if the call is “spider,” linebackers are going after the QB. The other groups know what coverage or technique to play when the linebackers blitz.

Here’s an example of how that looks:

And another:

The other thing Bateman will have to adjust to now that he’s not at Army is that he won’t be working in concert with with an offense that runs the football version of four-corners tempo. He no longer has an offense that by design dominates time of possession, like the Black Knights’ triple option does.

Four-corners was the pre-shot clock era offensive scheme that helped bring UNC legend Dean Smith to prominence. It was literally built to chew clock by playing keep-away.

A college football analogue is Army’s flexbone. The other offense can’t score if it’s on the bench, hence Oklahoma scoring just 21 in regulation against West Point in 2018.

In 2018, Army held the ball for 38:33 per game, more than two minutes more than any other team in the last decade. Now Bateman’s defense will pair with Longo’s offense. His units have been prolific, but they don’t hold the ball for long. Ole Miss ranked 123rd in time of possession (26:58) in 2018, and that’s the highest it ranked in Longo’s two years there.

If that Longo offense isn’t scoring, it creates the common issue for a defense that compliments a prolific offense. Lightning-quick ineffective offense means lightning-quick three-and-outs that put a ton of strain on a tired defense.

How does Bateman adjust play-calling strategies, platooning of his players, and overall aggressiveness? Those are schematic growing pains that the Heels will have to get through.

We’ve already seen how this type of defense can pair with an electric offense in further Oklahoma-UNC overlap. This shapeshifting positionless defense was former Ohio State defensive coordinator Alex Grinch’s claim to fame when he was at Washington State.

An air raid defense doesn’t need to pitch shutouts as long as its offense is holding up its end of the bargain: top-30 in yards-per-play and top-20 in yards-per-game, maybe.

The Sooners just hired Grinch to be their defensive coordinator. They’re embracing defensive versatility like the Heels will under Bateman.

The growing pains will be there, but this is one of the most interesting schematic marriages in the country.

Brown, Longo, and Bateman are only in Chapel Hill because UNC wasn’t up to par at the end of Larry Fedora’s tenure. But Longo’s Ole Miss offense was strong even with NCAA-hampering depth issues and about the same team talent as UNC has now.

Bateman’s coached good Army defenses and worked around size deficiencies of service academy football. Now, he’ll face tougher offenses, but he’ll have more sought-after players on his side of the ball, too.