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UNC Football Position Previews: Special Teams

The third phase of the game is undergoing a coaching change and is under a lot of pressure to get better

NCAA Football: South Carolina at North Carolina Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

While UNC’s offense and defense both pretty much exceeded everybody’s expectations last year in UNC’s return to national relevance, its special teams, a near- complete unknown when Mack Brown took over, were pretty much at or below expectation for the year. Brown, dissatisfied, fired special teams coordinator Scott Boone, who he’d brought on, for new coach Jovan Dewitt. All that is to say the unit’s got a lot of continuity in personnel, but they’re still starting fresh thanks to the coaching change and the pandemic, and we know they’re facing high expectations after Brown’s reaction to last year. Let’s see what they’re working with.

Key Losses

Other than Boone, the special teams room loses last year’s graduate transfer Michael Rubino, who handled some kickoffs for the team. I don’t know how many of them he handled, but according to his GoHeels page, he kicked 18 of UNC’s 41 touchbacks. He had a good career at Appalachian State, and was likely a valuable mentor for the rest of UNC’s specialists, all of whom were seeing their first collegiate action.

Key Returnees

On the punting side, things are pretty clear. Drew Little, after a rock-solid true freshman season without any real hiccups, will continue to long-snap to his classmate Ben Kiernan, who had a pretty rocky year but showed serious potential. Kiernan averaged 41.3 yards per punt, which is pretty mediocre, but had some great games, including against Wake Forest — where he averaged 46 yards per punt on 10 kicks. Gaining consistency will be key for him moving forward, because he’s definitely got the leg and stamina to be a really good punter as his UNC career continues.

Last year’s primary kicker, Noah Ruggles, also returns for his junior season. In his first season of real game action, Ruggles had his ups and downs. On the positive side, he didn’t miss an extra point the whole year (out of 45) and finished the year strong, hitting 9 out of his last 11 field goal attempts with both misses from beyond 50. On the minus side, that means he started the year 10/16, with 2 misses (to 2 makes) in the 30-39 range and 3 misses (to 2 makes) in the 40-49 range. Additionally, in that hot streak to close the year, he never hit a field goal farther out than 40 yards. And his clutch factor seemed to come and go; he hit a game-winner against Duke from 40, but had missed a couple of potential game-winners against Virginia Tech the week prior. Like Kiernan, he’s got the leg, with a season long of 49, to be a good kicker for the Heels. But he, too, needs to get consistent. His snapper, Trevor Collins, also didn’t miss a snap all year and will return for his senior season.

And finally, both of last year’s primary returners, Dazz Newsome on punts and Michael Carter on kicks, return as well. We’ve profiled them in their position previews, but both have the ability to be electric returners. Last year was a down one for both of them, which might have been a major reason for Boone’s dismissal: their blocking was usually nonexistent and gave them little room to work with. After averaging 15.1 yards per punt return in 2018, Newsome regressed all the way down to 6.8 yards per return last year, and Carter only took back 19 kickoffs even though he had a pretty decent average.

Walk-on kicker Jonathan Kim, who backed up Ruggles and started against Duke, also returns. He hit both his extra point attempts against Mercer but badly missed a 52-yarder against Duke.

New Arrivals

Mack Brown and his staff have attracted another graduate transfer placekicker, and he’s a big deal. Grayson Atkins will join the Tar Heels for the 2020 season after graduating from FCS Furman, where he was First Team FCS All-America as a junior. Last season, he was 13/15 on field goals, including 7/9 from 40 and beyond, hit a long of 55, and was 48/50 on PATs. It’s unclear if Mack Brown and Dewitt will name a starting kicker before the season and stick with him or do what Brown claimed to do last year and determine each game’s starting kicker through a pre-game competition, but either way, Atkins has the pedigree to compete to start this year.

Some of this year’s freshmen also have a chance to return kicks and/or punts. Ja’Qurious Conley was an electric return man in high school and Josh Downs is one of the shiftiest guys on the team, but there could be others who step up as well, especially to help Carter out on kick return duty.

Outlook

At times, I don’t really understand how Mack Brown coaches his special teams. Fans and analysts have dissected his management of the Virginia Tech situation to death, so I won’t re-litigate it here. There are a couple of things that worry me more, though. The first is that instead of sticking with his starting kicker and allowing him to develop after the consistency he showed to close the year, he recruited Atkins to the team. At worst, Ruggles beats him and Atkins adds nothing. At best, he beats out Ruggles, kicks for a year, and leaves, leaving Ruggles with just a year left of eligibility (well, two now that the NCAA is giving everybody a voluntary redshirt this year, but Brown didn’t know that) and having lost a year of in-game development, and the staff with no kicker being seriously recruited to take over once he’s gone, for which pursuit would have to be going down now. It feels like a coach who’s done so well managing his offensive and defensive rosters to maximize both the on-field product and the future is completely mortgaging the future of his field-goal kicking unit for a possible one-year upgrade rather than applying his normal roster construction and development philosophies across the board. Also worrying to me is what he’s said about how he wants to coach special teams, because I think it’s strategically misguided. According to this feature from InsideCarolina, Brown said of last year,

“I just feel like that we need to block more kicks. We need to return more punts [for touchdowns]. There are areas where we can score and I never felt like we were going to block a punt or return a punt. We weren’t a factor.”

Just 20 teams in the entire FBS blocked more than one punt last year, and less than 30 more blocked any at all. A single blocked punt the entire season is a success for a special teams unit, and should be treated as a welcome anomaly, not a goal. Furthermore, you block punts by recruiting game-changers, not through scheme or coaching. Focusing as much as Brown seems to want to on punt blocks seems uncalculated and wishful to control things you can’t control, rather than what you can. The point about punt returns is more valid, but still kind of missing the point, I think: Brown is looking for plays on special teams that turn games on their head, rather than a special teams unit that makes games more winnable by adding points consistently and giving the offense and defense favorable yardage. Splash plays are great, but football math favors the latter approach. Maybe UNC’s special teams didn’t splash last year, but they didn’t do the little things to make games easier too well, either, and that’s where you can really work to change things. Jovan Dewitt does seem to get this, saying of his approach that “we try to make it competent and simple... And you’re not worried about them being able to execute their job. I always believe that simple minds make for fast feet.” Simplify, execute, and do it all fast. If the specialists can just manage that after a full year of action (for the kickers) and a more concerted effort to create return lanes (for the returners), this unit can turn from the team’s biggest weakness to a consistent aid.