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2015 Football Preview: Special Teams

The 2015 season is fast approaching. Here is a look at UNC's special teams.

Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Mixed bag.

That is probably the best way to describe UNC's special teams as a whole last season. There was some good in the punting by Tommy Hibbard and covering kicks, average at best in the return game and downright awful when it came to putting the ball between the uprights. Heading into the 2015 season, UNC could use improvement across the board to perhaps give the team a slight edge and perhaps mitigate potential defensive woes.

Kick and punt returns

2014 was supposed to be the season of Ryan Switzer. As a freshman in 2013, Switzer returned five punts for touchdowns so it stood to reason he would be a dangerous weapon in the punt return game, even with opponent adjustments last season. It didn't work out that way, in fact UNC ended up 12th out of 14 teams in the ACC with just 4.55 yards per return and zero touchdowns. In 2013 UNC averaged 18.13 yards per return to go along with five touchdowns. The precipitous drop off was somewhat unexpected although some slowing down of Switzer by opposing teams adjustments wouldn't have been.

Both Switzer and Larry Fedora have said that one issue last season was attempting to turn every punt return in a spectacular play. Too often Switzer eschewed letting the punt fall or a fair catch in hopes of getting a big return. In many of those cases the coverage was too good and the result was marginal at best from a field position standpoint. The ability to pick his moments and make better choices on returns will be crucial if Switzer is going to maximize his talent as a punt returner.

On kickoff returns, UNC used nine different players to return kicks last season. The preseason depth chart listed Romar Morris, Damien Washington and T.J. Logan was the primary returners. Those three accounted for 38 of UNC's 49 returns last season. That trio will likely do most of the heavy lifting again.

In reality, the kickoff return has less value than it once did. The 25 yard starting position for a touchback means a player is less likely to bring the ball out and even kicks caught at the goal line end up being returned to about the 25. In the ACC last season there were a total of three touchdowns on kickoff returns. Nationally there were 55 touchdowns by just 40 teams out of 128 in FBS. Any major return yardage or a touchdown on kickoff returns would be considered an unexpected bonus.


The Tommy Hibbard era has ended. The now graduated Hibbard provided UNC with solid punting during his career in Chapel and was known to pull of a fake or two. His ability to pin teams back was a nice weapon though a bit wasted with a defense that would promptly move down the field. The question is can the next man up provide similar production?

At this stage there is no way to answer this question.  The preseason depth chart listed redshirt freshman Corbin Daly and junior Joey Mangli as the potential punters. Mangli has four career punts as a Tar Heel. Two in 2013 versus Virginia for 83 yards or a 41.5 average. He also had two punts last season in the bowl game after Hibbard had been suspended. Those punts were for an average of 24.5 yards.

That probably means Daly, who was highly touted coming out of high school, has the best shot at being the regular punter. Daly originally committed to Texas and was given hard looks by Ohio State and Alabama before opting to attend UNC.

Place Kicking

This might be the one aspect of the 2014 Tar Heel team that was worse than the defense and that's saying something. After enjoying nearly a decade of Barth family products giving UNC reliable placekicking, the program has fallen on hard times. The first post-Barth season in 2013 wasn't awful with Thomas Moore hitting 14-19. However field goal attempts of 40 yards or more proved problematic. In 2014 the wheels came off for Moore who hit just 1-5 and lost the job to Nick Weiler. The sophomore kicker was only slightly better at 5-8 but still unreliable as the distance approached or exceed 35-40 yards.

Obviously this is an area UNC could really use some improvement. Going for it on fourth down in the 20-30 yard range on the field is not necessarily the worst idea in the world. However if there is ever a need for such a field goal, it would be nice to know someone could reasonably hit it. The question is does UNC have anyone like that? Weiler is back for his junior season and if he can get things figured out it would certainly bolster the kicking game. Redshirt freshman Freeman Jones was a solid kicking prospect when he arrived but so far it is unclear if he can take the job or is even healthy. The preseason depth chart listed him behind Weiler and Fedora simply said the competition was ongoing.

The season doesn't hinge on the kicking game but not having that option could prove to be problematic at exactly the wrong time.

Return Coverage

Last season UNC limited teams to just 4.14 yards per return on punts and 17.41 yards on kickoff returns. That was good enough for 3rd and 1st in the ACC respectively. On the national level those averages put UNC 18th and 10th overall. The question is how much of those solid numbers, especially on punt returns, can be owed to the kick itself? HIbbard's leg certainly helped the coverage team contain opposing returners. On kickoffs, neither Weiler or Moore possessed a booming leg pointing to UNC doing a solid job in coverage.

The importance of return coverage cannot be overlooked given the state of UNC's defense. Even if the defense enjoys great strides forward, it could still be suspect. Not saddling a struggling defense with excellent fielding position for the opponents would give Gene Chizik one less of what could be many headaches.