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UNC Football Season Grades: Special Teams

Larry Fedora made sure these units were strengths the past two years. Did he keep it up in his last?

NCAA Football: North Carolina at Syracuse Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s start this with a flashback to approximately 3 months ago, when I wrote the special teams preview for the Heels:

The only real loss from last season is at punt returner, and Fedora has a ton of good options to trot out there at that position. The kicker position was shaky last year, but showed improvement at the end and Jones has been impressive in practice. [Hunter] Lent showed what he could do last year, and [Anthony] Ratliff-Williams was All-ACC last year and hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down. I feel confident in saying that this is going to be a great unit for the 3rd straight year.

Leave it to the Heels to do basically exactly the opposite of what was expected. Three supposedly proven commodities regressed hard, while the lone unknown coming into the year was one of the best units in the country. Carolina football, man. It really does defy explanation. Position by position, let’s take a look at how the Tar Heel special teams performed.

Kicking/Punting

Last year, the UNC offense was absolutely anemic, only affording the kicker 14 field goal attempts on the season. Jones missed 4 out of his first 8 before nailing 5 out of his last 6, giving us, or at least me, some hope that he might be adjusting to game speed after joining the team as a walk-on. A final statline of 9/14 (for 64%) Turns out that was just good ol’ statistical variance, because with twice the opportunity this year, Jones hit... wait for it... 18/28 of his field goals, exactly the same ratio except doubled. UNC lost 5 games by one score this season, including two that went to overtime. Jones is simply not a very accurate kicker, hitting just 6 of his 10 attempts between 30 and 39 yards and 6 out of 11 attempts between 40 and 49. More statistical weirdness: That stat between 40 and 49 happened despite him starting the season 5/5 on such kicks in the first two games. Jones will graduate in the spring, leaving redshirt freshman Noah Ruggles to take his place. Ruggles was the 5th best kicker in his high school class, so there’s reason for optimism here. His only college action so far, for the record, has been hitting both of his extra point attempts against Western Carolina.

At least Jones simply stagnated. One of the biggest disappointments of the year for UNC was punter Hunter Lent, who took over for arguably the best punter in the ACC in Tom Sheldon and was nearly as good, averaging nearly 45 gross yards per punt, which ranked in the country’s top 10. This year, he took a massive step back in consistency which resulted in a paltry average of 39.9 yards per punt, a full 5-yard decrease from last year and barely making the country’s top 100. If you take out his 1-yard punt against NCSU, that number climbs to 40.6, which is still pretty bad, ranking around 82nd in the nation. The strange thing was, though, that he clearly still has a boomstick for a leg. In five out of UNC’s games this season, he banged a punt over 50 yards. In three more, including a game in the rain against NC State, his long was 48. But he simply wasn’t consistent, with numerous shanks and semi-shanks that didn’t flip the field like he is capable of doing. Maybe it was fatigue, as Lent was having a very good season until the Syracuse and Virginia games, where he punted 13 times for less than 38 yards a pop, including a 10-yard shank against Syracuse. His season never really recovered from there. Lent, too, is a senior, and unlike with the kicker position, UNC has precious little depth behind him. Freshman preferred walk-on Mats Pokela is about it, and he doesn’t have anything close to Ruggles’ credentials. Meanwhile, the best punter in the class of 2019, Ben Kiernan, has publicly declared that he will commit to UNC immediately if he gets a scholarship offer. Mack Brown, if you’re reading this, it’s not complicated.

Returns

If you haven’t seen it already, I refer you to this video from SB Nation’s Jon Bois, entitled “Kickoffs are stupid and bad.”

Since the touchback was moved to the 25- rather than the 20-yard line, it has been obvious to anybody who looks at the game with even a slightly analytical eye that if you have the opportunity to take a touchback, you take the dadgum touchback. It gets you more yards than the average return, eliminates the possibility of a turnover, and, as a bonus, it eliminates the most dangerous play in the game of football. So when the NCAA announced the new rule for this season that any kickoff behind the 25 could be fair-caught to be advanced to the 25, even I, as a person who thinks kickoffs are the worst part of football, thought this was too much: There really wasn’t a reason to return a kickoff that landed inside the 10-yard line or so anymore. If coaches were smart, the kickoff return was essentially eliminated.

Larry Fedora acknowledged that if he didn’t have a returner like Anthony Ratliff-Williams, who averaged better than 26 yards per return last year and scored two touchdowns, he would be planning on taking full advantage of this rule. But since he did, I’m fairly certain the Heels plowed forward as if the rule didn’t exist. Not once, to my memory, did a UNC returner, be it Ratliff-Williams or Dazz Newsome spelling him, fair catch a kickoff in the field of play. And predictably, as opposing kickers adjusted, Ratliff-Williams’ kick return average came crashing back down to Earth. ARW averaged just 21.4 yards per kickoff return and never really broke free on one. Newsome fared even worse in spot duty, returning 6 kickoffs for just over 125 yards. Somehow, UNC was able to take a rule that immensely favored returners and turn it into a situation that benefited the kicking team. Ratliff-Williams will presumably return for his senior season, hoping to reclaim some of his 2016 magic. Newsome will return as well, though given his value on punt returns, I don’t expect to see him doing much more on kickoffs. Speaking of which, though...

While kickoff returns were a disappointment, albeit a relatively pointless one, punt returns were an absolute delight after UNC lost two excellent punt returners to the NFL in the 2018 draft. Dazz Newsome, in addition to stepping up as a receiver and offensive weapon, quickly became one of the nation’s best punt returners, averaging 14.3 yards per run back (9th in the nation) and scoring on this memorable return against Syracuse:

Newsome is an All-ACC caliber player at receiver and returner, and hopefully he’ll build on this when he comes back for his junior season in 2019.

Coverage

This was the weakest spot for UNC’s special teams last year. The 2017 Heels were pretty good in kickoff coverage, allowing just 19.1 yards per return, good for top-30 in the country. Punts, however, were a different story, as the Heels allowed a touchdown and were otherwise pretty leaky at 12.7 yards per return against, putting them at 116th in the nation and clearly marking a problem area.

To his credit, Larry Fedora made sure that problem was fixed in his last year. Kickoff coverage remained essentially the same, as UNC opponents averaged 19.3 yards per kick return to rank 39th in the nation, but UNC was an elite team in punt coverage in 2018. Opponents averaged just 3.5 yards per punt return and never scored, as the Heels’ tackling and ability to beat blocks got a lot less suspect on special teams. This ranked 9th in the nation and helped make up for Lent’s pedestrian year, as it never really felt as if the Heels were ever truly losing the field position battle despite averaging just 39 yards per punt. I don’t know what, if anything, the staff changed about practices to create this change, but it’s pretty much the one thing I hope the new staff retains, because the ability not to create short fields for the defense was integral to giving UNC a chance in nearly every game it played.

Conclusion

Unfortunately, UNC was not able to maintain its excellent special teams play from the past few seasons, as the team regressed in basically every area but punt returns and punt coverage. Kicking and punting were mediocre and kick returns were infuriatingly average. On the bright side, UNC didn’t allow a return touchdown on the season, but did score one. Winning that number is always nice. The team will hope for a bounce back next season, but with all new specialists, including incoming freshman Drew Little at long snapper, it might get a little unpredictable.

Final Grade: C+