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UNC Football Position Previews: Special Teams

The third phase of the game should be stable.

NCAA Football: Orange Bowl-Texas A&M vs North Carolina Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports

Stable is not the word you would have used to describe special teams the first couple of seasons of Mack Brown’s second time around. His first season saw a huge merry-go-round and was so bad that he had to go ahead and replace his Special Teams coordinator before year two. Last season saw a grad transfer kicker and a pretty basic setup on kickoffs and punts because of the pandemic wiping out any chance for the team to practice. Depth also played a role, as the lack of depth meant players were playing in two phases.

That’s the sneaky part of special teams: the players you don’t think about. The guys who put their foot on the ball have the spotlight on them, but what makes a successful punt or kick return isn’t necessarily the person who puts it in the air, but actually sets the blocks to make sure a runner is brought down, or springs that return for a touchdown. In recent seasons, the coaches have had to rely on guys who then would turn around and play the next snap to do this work. Now, these players will get an extra few plays off as the youth that wants to make its mark will get in for their one time to shine.

Let’s take a peek at the players who’ll trot out on fourth down and after scores.

Key Losses

As odd as it is, the two biggest losses here are two of the biggest losses on offense: Dazz Newsome and Michael Carter. Newsome took seventeen of Carolina’s eighteen punt returns last year, and he also combined with Carter to take on nine of the eleven kickoff returns. The only others who have any experience catching the ball for a return are Rontavius Groves and DJ Jones. They have a combined...three...returns.

The losses of these two are key, for sure, but it’s worth noting that last season neither was able to take a return to the house for a touchdown. The longest return for either situation was a 38-yarder for Newsome. Some of this is a result of rule where a ball in the end zone will come out to the 25 on kickoffs, but it’s still stark that with all the talent on the field that none of them were able to break a run for a touchdown on kicks.

So the Tar Heels are likely going into the season having some auditions during camp to take over the primary roles, and we’ll see soon who gets to take it on.

Key Returnees

The three players who primarily kick the ball for the Tar Heels are all coming back: Ben Kiernan on punts, Grayson Atkins on kicks for points, and Jonathan Kim on kickoffs.

Kiernan is a steady foot who enters his third year booting the ball down the field. In 94 kicks he’s averaging 42.2 yards per kick, and has a 60+ yarder in each of his two seasons. None of his kicks have been blocked, which is more of a testament to the line than the kicker, but the kicker will also have to not panic when someone gets through. Another great stat for Kiernan is that half of his punts last season were inside the 20, and overall fans should have confidence in the Dublin, Ireland native going into this season

Atkins is a beneficiary of the “Covid Season,” as he was a grad transfer last year and was only supposed to be in Chapel Hill for a year. The Furman alumnus decided to take advantage of the year and come back for another kick at the can, so to speak. He started out shaky, but by the end of last season finished 12-18 in kicks and had a 51-yarder as his longest. He also kept a clean sheet with no blocks, and considering the adventures Carolina has had at the position the last few seasons it’s nice to have a steadier foot there. You may not be able to rely on him past 50 yards, but in front of the 50 he’s the best option Carolina has had for a while, and a good safety valve late in games.

Kim has a leg. He doesn’t have accuracy, as he proved the one or two times he was sent out to kick in 2019, but on kickoffs he’s about as a reliable kicker as you can ask for. Out of 89 kickoffs, an astounding 76 were touchbacks, almost all of them out of the end zone. That led the nation, and saved a ton of wear and tear on kickoffs for a team that just lacked depth. It’ll be interesting to see if Brown continues this, or if with the increased players to trot out on kickoffs he decides to start forcing players to run it back. Chances are, though, he’s going to continue to give the opponent the ball at the 25 and let his defense take its shots.

Newcomers

If Atkins struggles, Mack Brown has brought in two freshmen to pressure the super duper senior, one of whom is Teagen Lenderink. Lenderink was actually the eighth ranked kicker in the 2021 recruiting class, and converted all 32 PAT’s, 20-28 of his field goals with a long of 54 yards. Don’t be surprised if you see him trot out on the field for a kick in a game where the result isn’t in doubt, but it’s clear that Brown has prioritized getting some stability in this aspect of the game.

Kiernan looks to have the punting job on lock, but Cole Maynard joins the team as a Freshman in case something happens. In a perfect world, Cole gets a couple seasons to work at the craft under Kiernan, and if things aren’t looking good Brown has time to target that area down the line.

For this position, even though he’s a sophomore, the new player you’ll be looking to on punt returns will be Josh Downs. Brown mentions in the Charlotte Observer article linked above that Downs is who he and Special Teams coach Jovan Dewitt have targeted as having the best chance to break the return for a score, and they are also going to be aiming to get Brown’s first return for a touchdown since returning to Chapel Hill.

A true newcomer to the Heels, Ty Chandler, will get the nod on kickoff returns. As he’s going to be the primary tailback as well, chances are he isn’t going to do much more than Carter, simply because the calculus of getting the ball at the 25 usually is the better option than risking being taken out inside that line and adding to the wear that goes with having to do a kickoff return. That said, with one year to make a mark, Chandler may want to try his luck if the blocking is just right.

Outlook

Brown is willing to give Dewitt another season because of all of the factors that went into last year, as a new coach coming in with no spring practice and trying to make the best of a situation. Having the experience in punting, kickoffs, and field goals gives this unit a level of stability they haven’t had for a while, and with Brown and Dewitt looking to make special teams a real contributing member, don’t be surprised if Downs or Chandler have a highlight runback for a score before the end of the year.