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UNC Football Preview: Special Teams

With just four days to go until the first game, we’ll take another look at UNC’s special teams heading into week one.

James Madison v North Carolina Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

A few weeks back I put together an early preview of UNC’s special teams. At that time, camp was just underway, so there was still a lot of uncertainty around a number of positions in that area of the team. Much like the offense, the special teams groups are having to replace a number of big contributors from the last couple of years, like Ryan Switzer, Nick Weiler, and T.J. Logan.

Larry Fedora knows and values the importance of special teams, and it is one of the reasons why he puts some of his best players in those roles, along with the other positions that they may primarily play.

Now with just a few days remaining before the first game of the season against California, there are fewer questions marks in some areas on special teams, but a few battles for position are still being played out in the final practices.

Thanks to the depth chart that was just released by Carolina Football’s Twitter account (seen below), we have a little more clarity on a number of these special team positions.

Let’s take a look at each of these areas on special teams, as we head into the game on Saturday against the Golden Bears.

Punting

Here is what I wrote back in early August:

Sheldon will head into the season as the team’s starting punter. He is one of the only impact players on special teams who is returning from last year.

As a freshman, Sheldon came to the Tar Heels from Australia and had a very successful season. He helped to address a position of concern for the North Carolina football team in recent years, due to lack of consistency in that part of the kicking game.

Sheldon finished his freshman season with an average of 42.7 yards per punt, which was good enough for 4th in the ACC, and he was named to the Freshman All-America team by the FWAA.

He also played a large role in helping the punt coverage team limit opponents to only two return yards all season on his 50 punts. The impressive height and hang time on his punts helped his teammates get down the field quickly in punt coverage, which led to a lack of returns for opponents. Sheldon was also successful in pinning opposing teams inside the 20-yard line as well.

After an impressive first year as the Tar Heels punter, Sheldon will look to improve on his second season and lead this group as one of the few returning starters.

Heading into Saturday’s game:

Sheldon will run out onto the field as the team’s starting punter, which was no surprise. Along with getting adjusted to the game of football and playing in the United States, he has worked in the offseason on continuing to improve his punts and help lead a punting unit that was one of the best in the NCAA last season.

Kicking

Here is what I wrote back in early August:

The competition for UNC’s place kicking job is wide open as the Tar Heels enter fall camp. Three players are competing for the spot left open by the departure of senior Nick Weiler.

Weiler was a consistent weapon for the Tar Heels the last few years. He led the team in scoring, and he connected on 71% and 84% of his field goals in each of the last two seasons. After a shaky start to his career, Weiler turned it around to become a reliable kicker for UNC and a fan favorite after his game-winning kick (and celebration) last season against Florida State.

Junior Freeman Jones is currently the only kicker on the roster who has seen game action at the collegiate level. Jones connected on his only extra point attempt in 2015, and he most notably was the onside kicker in the ACC Championship game against Clemson.

Jones will be competing against two incoming freshmen, Noah Ruggles and Cooper Graham, for the starting kicker position this upcoming season. Ruggles was one of the highest rated kickers in high school (Kohl’s Kicking #5 overall kicker, #9 kicker by 247sports.com, #12 kicker by ESPN.com), so he is looking to come in and compete right away for the starting job. Graham, a preferred walk-on, also comes into camp as a well-respected high school kicker by recruiting experts.

It will be interesting to see how this competition plays out in the coming weeks, as the kicker could play an important role on this year’s team, as there are numerous question marks on the offensive side of the ball and where points may come at a premium. It will be valuable to have a kicker that Coach Fedora trusts and that the staff can rely on whenever the team gets in scoring position.

Heading into Saturday’s game:

In the video below (thanks to Tar Heel Illustrated), Coach Fedora talks about the competition in camp between Jones and Ruggles and how there is just a kick (through all of the practices and scrimmages) separating the two players.

As noted on the depth chart, it appears that a starting kicker has still not been named and this competition (along with the starting quarterback position) may go all the way up to game time on Saturday with maybe a kick or two in the final few practices deciding who ends up getting the start.

A number of reports throughout training camp have mentioned that both kickers have shown strong legs and have been accurate, so it looks like Fedora has a good problem on his hands in trying to decide between the two players. Also, if one appears to struggle at any point in the season, Fedora will have someone reliable he can fall back on if needed.

Returns

When the UNC football team opens up the season against California on September 2nd, it will be without two of its most electric and record-setting playmakers in the return game. Both Ryan Switzer and T.J. Logan are now eluding tacklers in the NFL.

Logan finished his career at Carolina with five kickoff returns for touchdowns. He had two of those touchdowns in his senior season, along with being the number one ranked player in the ACC in yards per kickoff return (32.9).

Switzer was a dangerous weapon for the Tar Heels as a punt returner. As a freshman, he led the ACC and NCAA in yards per return (20.9) and punt returns for touchdowns (5). He finished his career as the ACC’s all-time leading punt returner with seven touchdowns.

Similar to the kicking position, there is not much experience at this position on the team. Anthony Ratliff-Williams has fielded seven kickoffs in his first two seasons, with an average of 19.7 yards per return, while Austin Proehl was the only other player to field a punt (1 for 28 yards) other than Switzer the last two seasons.

At this point through the first few days of fall camp, it appears the position is wide open and one in which we will have to watch closely in the coming weeks and possibly revisit.

Heading into Saturday’s game:

After a couple weeks of trying to find replacements for two of the most prolific returners in UNC history, Switzer and Logan, Fedora has turned to two veterans who have had some (though limited) game experience in the return game. Proehl (which Fedora talks about in the video from Tar Heel Illustrated below) and Ratliff-Williams will return punts and kick-offs, respectively to start the season.

Dazz Newsome appeared to be in the running to start for both of these positions, but ultimately experience won out over the speedy freshman. Newsome will get the opportunity to return kicks, as he is listed as second on the depth chart behind Ratliff-Williams.

M.J. Stewart, who is also the starting cornerback, will also be a back-up kick-off and punt return specialist on special teams.