Early in August, North Carolina Tar Heels head coach Mack Brown emphasized that kicks and punts were to be a competition in every practice:
Noah Burnett and Jonathan Kim are competing every kick. And the one that makes the most kicks is kicking. We don’t care. Cole Maynard and Ben Kiernan are punting every punt, and we’re demanding that it be four-second hangtime. We’re demanding it be 40-plus yards. And we’re demanding it be beyond the numbers or into the boundary. And we’re putting the one out there to punt does that more than not. So there’s a tremendous amount of competition in those groups. Because that’s a group that maybe has one to three to five functions a game and they can’t be two out of five. They got to be 100 percent. So they’ve got to be automatic. And I think they’re feeling that with competitive pressure in practice.
Kim and Kiernan are the prospective starts at kicker and punter, respectively. Kim would be getting a promotion to placekicker after being a stalwart as UNC’s kickoff specialist, while Kiernan enters his third year as the Heels’ starting punter.
There are some reasons for concern with each of them. Kim has rarely placekicked in a game since entering college in 2019, with just two extra point conversions and a badly missed field goal against Duke in 2019 (which you may remember as the Chazz Surratt goal-line-interception game).
Kiernan’s been fairly inconsistent as a punter to this point in his career, though his fair catch numbers improved significantly from 2020 to 2021 - hopefully a sign of more hangtime and better coverage. But his punting average stayed the same, a middling gross 43.7 yards per punt, and he landed fewer punts inside the 20 and had fewer 50-yard kicks than the year prior despite nearly 10 more attempts. He finished the year on a sour note as well, with two blocked attempts versus N.C. State, and I definitely remember a few shanks throughout the season. Hopefully his senior season sees more consistency and a little more power like he showed in the good parts of his 2020.
Senior Drew Little will return as the long snapper, and Brown had nothing but good things to say about him:
Drew is so good; we’ll really miss Drew when he leaves. I’d never put a snapper on scholarship before he got here, as a high school player. I always made them earn it. And when Larry already had offered him I said, “Eh, I don’t know.” Now we don’t even mention Drew, and that’s a good thing. If you don’t know who the snapper is, that’s a good thing. If he’s getting a lot of attention, it ain’t good, brother.
A couple of weeks ago, there wasn’t any reason to think Josh Downs wouldn’t be the Heels’ primary punt returner after averaging 9.8 yards per return last year. However, with Antoine Green’s injury that will keep him out of action at least for the first four games of the season, the coaching staff could elect to be more cautious with their star receiver and the only wide receiver on the roster who will have notable game experience when the season starts. Mack Brown has mentioned freshman wide receiver Andre Greene, freshman running back George Pettaway, freshman wide receiver Tyshaun “Doc” Chapman, and redshirt freshman cornerback Dontae Balfour as other options at punt return.
There’s one position on special teams where we have no idea who will start the season: who is going to return kicks?
The two likely candidates probably come from the list of four above, but Brown was not too concerned with the answer:
It’s pretty much the same guys on kickoff. We don’t have Josh on kickoff, probably should. But you don’t get to return many kickoffs anymore with a great kicker. One of the things you have to start doing is you look at the other team and if their guy can kick it out, don’t waste a lot of time during the week. You work on sky kicks and you work on squibs. If it’s a short kick and they don’t cover very well, then you start working on your returns, but don’t waste time.
Last season, Carolina returned just 19 kickoffs and nine were handled by defensive back Ja’Qurious Conley, who’s not expected to be ready for the start of the season.
2022 Special Teams
|Hometown / High School
|Hometown / High School
|Waxhaw, N.C. / Marvin Ridge
|Richfield, N.C. / North Stanly
|Shelby, N.C. / Shelby
|Charlotte, N.C. / Mountain Island Charter
|Fredericksburg, Va. / Massaponax
|Raleigh, N.C. / Leesville Road
|Dublin, Ireland / Wakefield (N.C.)
|Mooresville, N.C. / Hough