A lot of incredible college specialists have passed through North Carolina in the past few years. Ryan Switzer is the headline-grabber, with his ACC-record seven career punts returned for touchdowns, but besides him, UNC has boasted such players as Nick Weiler, T.J. Logan, Tom Sheldon, and even M.J. Stewart, who was quietly one of the nation’s better punt returners when he was forced into service last year. All of them are gone, however, some to the NFL and some simply to the next stages of their lives. Does UNC have what it takes to keep what’s been a strong special teams unit at the top of its game? Keep reading to find out:
UNC excelled at most phases of special teams last year, though they suffered a slight decline from the year before. Anthony Ratliff-Williams stepped in for T.J. Logan on kickoff return duty without missing a beat, going for 26.3 yards a pop and hitting paydirt twice. I’m extremely anti-kickoff return most of the time, but those are the kinds of numbers that make them worth trying. UNC didn’t defy me, however, on kickoff coverage, restricting opponents to just 19.1 yards per kick return. Tom Sheldon was excellent again before his injury, grossing 45.8 yards per punt. Hunter Lent took over for him after the injury and while he didn’t have quite the leg-cannon that Sheldon did, he grossed a respectable 44.9 yards per punt.
The Heels were mediocre at punt coverage, however, allowing 12.7 yards per return and bringing down the net punt yardage to just 39.4 yards per punt (mind you, that’s a decent number and ranked 34th in the country). Walk-on junior Freeman Jones won placekicking duty over scholarship freshman Noah Ruggles and was serviceable, hitting all but one of his extra points and 9 of 14 field goals. That latter number isn’t good, but it’s hard to judge given low volume and the fact that half of his attempts were from 40 yards or deeper. Up to 39 yards, Jones was 6/7, but he was just 3/7 from 40+ (including 2/5 from 40-49). Notably, he got better as the year went on, with makes from 51, 45, and 48 and just one miss (from 43) in the last four games of the season.
Punter Tom Sheldon, the Australian who had never played American football before joining the team in 2016 and immediately excelling, has left the team. He missed the latter part of the 2017 season with injury, and while it’s believed he’s healthy, the sense is that he wants to move forward with his life in his home country. Additionally, both players who picked up significant punt returning duty in 2017, namely Austin Proehl and Stewart, have gone on to the NFL.
What’s still there:
Ratliff-Williams, now a junior, is ready to take his return game to the next level. While the new rule that kickoff returners can fair-catch kicks inside the 25 for touchbacks is expected to reduce the number of returns across the country, Larry Fedora and ARW don’t plan on removing the threat that he offers from this phase of the game. Expect him to be among the nation’s leaders in return yardage this year.
Lent will now take full-time punting duties, and based on what he showed last year, should have no problem maintaining UNC’s ability to flip the field the last two years.
Both kickers are still on the roster. It’s clear after last year that Jones has the coaches’ trust, so expect him to keep kicking for UNC this year. Don’t forget about Noah Ruggles, though. He was good enough to use a scholarship on and was rated the 5th-best kicker in his class by Kohl’s Kicking Camp. This is a position that looks well-filled for several years to come.
UNC will have to find somebody to take the role of punt returner. Ratliff-Williams is a candidate, but his long speed and strength make him more suited to kickoffs than punts. Redshirt sophomore Rontavius “Toe” Groves can return, but he is coming off two serious injuries almost in a row now and is an unknown quantity. Dazz Newsome, who flashed serious game speed last season, should also figure into the equation. Additionally, newcomers Dyami Brown and Antoine Green have been noted for their athleticism and speed; it wouldn’t be surprising to see either of them returning punts, either. I’d put Green ahead of Brown based on their abilities; Brown is more in the Ratliff-Williams mold of straight-line runners. Larry Fedora specializes in recruiting offensive skill players with return-worthy skillsets, and this year should be no different.
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. Lent showed what he could do last year, and 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.