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A breakdown of UNC football’s special teams

Breaking down UNC’s special teams, and how they can be a huge weapon for the Heels in the upcoming season.

NCAA Football: North Carolina at South Carolina Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

A lot of talk has been made this offseason about the returning weapons on offense for the Tar Heel football team. However, UNC is also returning some big weapons on their special teams.

The Heels have one of the top punt returners in NCAA history in Ryan Switzer, a kick returner who has the quickness to break one for a touchdown at any time in T.J. Logan, and one of the best place-kickers in the ACC in Nick Weiler. All three are seniors and provide much needed experience and leadership in each of these areas.

The one area on special teams that UNC struggled with last year was punting, and it is the one area that has seemingly gotten the most coverage this offseason with the ongoing battle between Tom Sheldon and Joey Mangili.

Let’s take a quick look at each of these areas on special teams.

Placekicking

Nick Weiler returns for his senior season after a pretty successful junior year in which he broke the school record with his 67 extra point attempts made (100% successful on the season). Weiler has already been named to the Lou Groza Award preseason watch list, which is given to the best kicker in college. Just two years ago the Heels could barely make a field goal outside of 30 yards, but now Coach Fedora can count on Weiler to be consistent from even up to 50 yards away.

Weiler was 20 for 23 last year (87%) with his longest successful kick being from 48 yards away. He averaged 9.1 points a game last year for the Tar Heels, which was good enough for 2nd in the ACC. Weiler gives an already explosive offense just another weapon that can put points on the board.

Kickoff Returns

TJ Logan appears to be the one who will anchor the kickoff return position this upcoming season, like he has done the past three years. The senior is considered a speedster who can run one back any time the ball is kicked to him. Though he has not scored a kickoff return touchdown the last two years, he did have two touchdowns in his freshman season. UNC was in the middle of the pack in the ACC (9th) last year in average kickoff return yards (20.7 yards per return).

Punting

Many schools have competitions to determine the starting quarterback or for a spot on the offensive line, but the biggest competition in UNC’s camp seems to be for the top punting job (Okay, the right guard position is probably the biggest battle, but it is more fun to say this is). The position has been one of the weaker ones in the last few years for the Tar Heels. UNC averaged just 35.9 yards per punt in 2015-2016, which was second to last in the ACC (the positive spin is that UNC had the fewest number of punts in the ACC last year).

Joey Mangili, a senior, is competing with Tom Sheldon, a 27-year-old freshman from Australia, for the starting spot. Mangili comes in with an average of 40.8 yards per punt, while Sheldon has never played the sport of American football.

Note: I never thought I would see a punting highlight video or knew they even existed, but here you go. Here is a highlight video (thanks to Prokick Australia) of UNC’s newest punter, Sheldon.

No matter who wins the job out of fall camp, Nick Weiler believes UNC is in good hands. “He and Joey had an awesome duel,” Weiler said. “So that competition is going to be great. They’re both great punters, so whoever the coaching staff goes with we’re going to be successful with.”

It will be interesting to see if either one of these punters gets “a leg up” on the other in the coming days.

Punt Returns

UNC has one of (if not the) best punt returner in college football in Ryan Switzer. The senior possesses lightning quickness and the zig-zagging ability to elude defenses. He is one of those players that you expect to run for a touchdown or do something equally amazing every time he touches the ball. It is disappointing (though not a bad strategy) that other teams are punting the ball away from him or out-of-bounds so that he doesn’t even get the chance to touch it.

During the 2015-2016 season, UNC ranked 3rd in the ACC (16th in the NCAA) in punt return yards with 13.2 yards per return. The Heels led the ACC in punt return touchdowns with two, both by Switzer, and he comes in to the year one punt return touchdown shy of tying Wes Welker’s record of eight. Switzer’s unique playmaking ability is why he is on the preseason watch list for the Hornung Award (most versatile player in college football) and the preseason All-ACC team for special teams.