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UNC Football Preview: Special Teams

There will be some new faces on special teams this season for the Tar Heels.

NCAA Football: Virginia Tech at North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

A lot of talk has been made this offseason about the number of holes that will need to be filled on offense, due to players graduating or leaving early for the NFL. However, another area on the UNC Football team that will need to replace a number of weapons is special teams.

Over the last few years, we have become accustomed to seeing Ryan Switzer returning punts for touchdowns, Mack Hollins sprinting down the field to make tackles on punt/kickoff coverage, Nick Weiler splitting the uprights on field goals and extra points, and T.J. Logan using his speed/quickness on kickoff returns. Unfortunately, for the football team and Tar Heel fans, those players will no longer be running out of the tunnel in Kenan Stadium this upcoming season.

As seen in the video below, Coach Larry Fedora mentioned at his ACC Kickoff press conference (thanks in part to a great question from Tar Heel Blog’s own Chad Floyd) that he was nervous heading into the season having to replace so many familiar names on special teams.

Coach Fedora also talks about the importance of special teams and being really good in that area of the game, which is something he takes pride in. In order for special teams to be successful they will be relying on players without a lot of experience in each of these areas (other than the punter, Tom Sheldon).

After just a few days of camp, let’s take a look at some of the players who might be potential starters on special teams when fall practices conclude in a few weeks.

Punting

As mentioned by Fedora in the video above, 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.

Kicking

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.

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.

After the first few days of practice, here is Coach Fedora’s response (thanks to the video from Tar Heel Illustrated) as to some of the names that might play a role in fielding kickoffs or punts on UNC’s return teams.

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.