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UNC Position Preview: Special Teams

Perhaps UNC’s biggest area of turnover from 2018 to 2019 gets a look

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 24 NC State at North Carolina Photo by Dannie Walls/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

For the phase of football that makes up roughly 15% of the game’s snaps to offense and defense’s ~40% apiece, special teams have enjoyed a special place in the hearts of UNC fans this side of 2010. Off the top of my head, I’d think that 2 of UNC’s three most iconic on-field moments of this decade came from special-teams play: Gio Bernard’s podcast-name-inspiring return to beat NCSU in 2012, and Nick Weiler’s tomahawk chop down the field after a 55-yarder to beat FSU in 2016 (my third would be... Bug Howard’s touchdown to beat Pitt in 2016? Fun start to the year, that). Obviously, that’s not super unique, special teams play comes with a ton of pressure exactly because of the several-point swings that can happen on each play. And with an offense and defense that are going to need to be broken in over the beginning of the season, special teams stability is vital to make sure they don’t get sunk in too many holes too quickly. Let’s see what UNC’s working with:

Review

UNC’s special teams last year were a bit of a disappointment overall, but, at least on the kicking side, not an unpredictable one. Senior placekicker Freeman Jones was mediocre for the second straight year, making 18/28 field goals for a 64.3% mark. Jones wasn’t really even reliable past 30 yards, going 6/10 from 30-39, 6/11 from 40-49, and missing his only 50+ yarder. In an interesting statistical anomaly, Jones doubled his attempts from 2017 and hit at exactly the same rate. I thought that a larger sample size might tell us more about who he was, but it turns out that he was exactly who he had shown himself to be. He was 31/31 on extra points, so that’s good, I guess. Senior punter Hunter Lent got a lot of work due to an anemic offense, and while his gross average went down 4 yards from 2017 to 39.9 yards per punt (100th in the nation), he was excellent at avoiding return yardage, bringing UNC’s net punt average to 38.7 yards per punt (a much more palatable 42nd). This paints the picture of a UNC team that was better at moving the ball than 2017’s, making his punts less about distance and more about direction. He managed to avoid touchbacks all year, too. UNC ranked 10th in the nation with just 3.5 punt return yards against them per game (I can’t find where 1.12 return yards per punt ranked officially, but I’m guessing it’s high as well). Jones, for his part, kicked off pretty well, too, forcing 20 returns to 32 touchbacks, and his coverage supported him by allowing 19.3 yards per return, 35th in the country.

Returns were much less predictable. We knew that kickoff returns were going to be neutered and that Anthony Ratliff-Williams would likely regress to the mean a little after an otherworldly 2017 where his returns were probably more than half the offense, but he was still one of the best at the job in the country. Meanwhile, punt returns were going to be an adventure with all the team’s punt returners gone after doing a good job in rotation. Almost exactly the opposite happened: Ratliff-Williams came crashing down to Earth hard and averaged a mediocre 21.4 yards per return, almost never breaking free as teams gave opposing returners less and less running room to tempt them into not taking the touchback (As an aside, between ARW’s 28 returns and Dazz Newsome’s 6 that were kicked away from Ratliff-Williams, UNC returned 34 kicks after a rule change that made touchbacks unilaterally the best option. That is horrendous game management). Meanwhile, Dazz Newsome simply exploded onto the scene as a punt returner, securing the lead job after never having done it in-game before and turning nearly every return into a good one. His 15.1 yards per punt return was 4th in the country, and according to Bill Connelly, he was even better than that: a 79% success rate led the nation. He even scored once!

Who’s Gone

Everybody I named in the previous section except for Newsome has graduated and left the university: Jones and Lent to the next stage of their lives, and Ratliff-Williams to the NFL despite a year remaining of eligibility (he’s now fighting for a roster spot with the Tennessee Titans).

Who’s Still Here

Dazz Newsome enters his junior year ready to pull dual duty as the starting punt return man and slot receiver, and he’s primed for a big year. Noah Ruggles also enters his third year on the roster, as a redshirt sophomore, and is the favorite to win the kicking job over App State grad transfer Michael Rubino. We haven’t seen much of him in Tar Heel blue, but he did nail both extra points he tried in late action last year. He was a highly ranked kicker coming out of high school, so expectations are high for him.

Who’s New

Oh, boy. I’ll go ahead and re-name Ruggles here, because a lot of UNC fans probably aren’t familiar with his name despite this being his third year on UNC’s roster. He was named the 5th best kicker at Kohl’s Kicking in 2017, ahead of Tennessee’s Brent Cimaglia who was very solid this past year. He’s competing Rubino, who comes to UNC with a career 24/36 record on field goals and 70/74 extra points made. His 4/12 mark on 40+ yard field goals is an eyesore, but I guess that’s what you get with #collegekickers. I think the job is Ruggles’ to lose, though.

In the other phase of the kicking game, we’ve got true freshman Ben Kiernan, who was rated among the nation’s best in his class by numerous kicking services, most notably that of Chris Sailer. Even 247, which has to consolidate every player at the position and not just campers, has him at 14th in their composite rankings for 2019. He’ll probably take the punting job now that it’s up for grabs. He and the kicker will be getting the ball from a new source, as well: Drew Little is a true freshman long snapper taking over for the graduated Kyle Murphy. He flipped from NC State to UNC soon after he got an offer, so I like him already. As he and Kiernan are both from North Carolina, they’ve got experience with each other already, which can only be a good thing when you’re talking about two freshmen in a high-pressure position. Murphy was an outstandingly steady snapper, so Little’s got big shoes to fill. 247 had him as the nation’s 9th-ranked deep snapper, and Rubio Long Snapping has him at 3rd from its camp, calling him one of the best to go through Rubio in a long time, so he’s got the ability to keep up my lack of memory of any snaps going bad for UNC.

Kickoff returns should be all but irrelevant with the new rule, but I’ll give them a shout here, too: Dyami Brown, Rontavius Groves, Antoine Greene, and perhaps Corey Bell should all get looks at KR, perhaps rotating throughout the season. I’ll be upset if UNC tries to take as many balls out of the 25-yard zone as they did last year, though.

Outlook

It’s a nearly brand-new looking special teams unit for the Tar Heels to go with the new-look offense and defense. It just feels right this way, huh? We’ll see some jitters, probably, as whomever takes the field to punt and kick gets used to the increase in size and speed of the bodies coming at them as they prepare to launch. Kiernan and Ruggles clearly have the talent, though, and I think will become steady presences as the year goes on. Some early success would definitely help. Newsome doesn’t seem like he’s slowing down at all, and should challenge for All-ACC recognition if he just maintains his form as a returner and UNC becomes less of a conference bottom-feeder. Special teams, just like everything else this year for UNC, will be an adventure, but it looks like one that should end up on the happy side.