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UNC Football: Position Grades, Part 3: Special Teams & Coaching

UNC’s best win of the year so far, despite way too many penalties

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 07 Syracuse at North Carolina Photo by David Jensen/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Now that we’ve taken a look at the offensive and defensive performances that did the heavy lifting in UNC’s defeat of the Miami Hurricanes, it’s time to look at the performances that supported them, on special teams and from the coaching staff. That first was under particular scrutiny this week, but I’ll get to that in a second.

Special Teams: B+

Kobe Paysour’s wasn’t the only injury that Tar Heel fans learned about in the warmup to Saturday’s game. It was also revealed that starting punter Ben Kiernan had suffered a season-ending knee injury, which means he’s punted his last ball as a Tar Heel — he’s in his fifth year as a starter and played in 5 games, disqualifying him from a redshirt. It’s an inauspicious end to Kiernan’s college career, which was nothing but solid or better for the majority of his time in Chapel Hill. Replacing him was Australian sophomore Tom Maginess, and pressed into duty on short notice, Maginess did quite well. The Tar Heels punted more than they’d gotten used to against Miami, and Maginess’ six punts, while only averaging 38.3 yards per kick, did not yield a single return against a dangerous return man, which is commendable. It seemed to me that Maginess kicked kind of whippily, withdrawing his foot instead of following through as if to try and speed up the process a little. It’s understandable for his first time out, but I’d like to see that cleaned up as he gets settled in at the position.

Speaking of that return man, UNC started the game kicking to the goal line for Brashard Smith, which worked pretty well: he almost broke one early but had been sprung by a hold, which brought Miami back to their own 10, and otherwise he had a couple of returns out to about touchback range or just let kicks go for touchbacks. Late in the third quarter, though, he almost broke one, taking it from his goal line to the Miami 37, and from there, UNC started short-kicking to keep it away from him, which also worked okay but ended up giving Miami pretty good field position later in the game. Miami’s kickoffs and punts were way less eventful, with the only return on either being an Alijah Huzzie punt return that was basically a catch-and-dive for three yards. The Heels did field two tough onside kicks late, one by Bryson Nesbit and one by Tez Walker, that were executed really well by Miami.

The Tar Heels continue to be in safe hands (feet?) in the placekicking game. Noah Burnette nailed all five of his extra points and field goals from 34 and 23 yards in the fourth quarter to keep the scoreboard moving while Miami started scoring in garbage time. Like I’ve said before, there’s not much that’s nominally impressive about the kicks Burnette is making, but it’s a huge step up from last year that he’s doing it consistently — and at this point, the fact that he hasn’t missed a kick all year is starting to be impressive regardless. Nine field goals isn’t a huge sample, but it’s getting there.

Coaching: B

I’m very ambivalent here, and I mean that in the “I have many thoughts that pull very hard in opposite directions” way and not in the “I have mixed feelings” way. Because on one hand, getting called for 14 penalties, including accruing the most penalty yardage a UNC team has in two decades, is an absolute embarrassment on the part of the coaching staff, and the nature of a couple of them does not make it better: four identical holding penalties that basically amounted to blockers engaging a half-second too long, which should’ve been ironed out after at most two of them by telling the team to be mindful because the officials were apparently making that a point of emphasis that night; a couple of undisciplined personal fouls; Des Evans lining up in the neutral zone on consecutive snaps. And there was stuff about the game-calling on both sides that irked me, too. My personal belief is that you should never rush three against a competent offense, but even if I don’t expect college coaches to be quite so radical, Gene Chizik did it way too often against Miami, and in more than just Prevent situations. I saw him rush three on a 3rd down and 7, which is absolute insanity. He didn’t get burned for it and even managed to get a Kaimon Rucker sack out of it once, but other than that sack, it looked like he got more lucky than anything — Miami receiver drops, or Tyler Van Dyke missing an easy throw, that kind of thing. Chip Lindsey clearly had a mission to pass to set up the run against one of the best run defenses in the country, and that in and of itself is something I’m in favor of (and honestly wasn’t sure Lindsey was willing to do when looking at his prior offenses and the first couple games of the season). In his resolution to do so, though, he ignored that rankings be hecked, Omarion Hampton was tearing up the Miami defense in a similar manner to how he’d done App State. Especially with Drake Maye under duress in the first half, it was pretty frustrating to see him call for dropbacks over and over again, which came to a head in the sequence to end the half. Lindsey, with well over a minute and all his timeouts in hand, called three straight passes and ended up gifting Miami an extra drive and three points as they expected pass all the way on defense and forced a punt with only 15 seconds off the clock.

But there was also a lot of good. For Lindsey, things got much better in the second half, where Miami started lining up with light boxes and Lindsey and Hampton punished them for it, re-setting up Maye’s passing game in the process, and after a flurry of points in the third, the Miami defense lost any juice they’d had, and it was game over from there. I’d like to see Lindsey both be more reactive early in the game and less conservative later on, but he came in with a plan, executed, and got to coast for the last 10 minutes — that’s a pretty good day’s work, in the end. As for Chizik, everything other than those three-man rushes was pretty competently orchestrated. He blitzed judiciously, if uncreatively, and made Van Dyke feel his extra rushers. He rotated his secondary nicely when a few guys were getting torched just to give Miami a few different looks, and it worked pretty well.

And as for the head man, there’s not much left to say. That end-of-half sequence is as much on him as Lindsey, but for the first time in several opportunities, I wasn’t left thinking he’d let his team get high on its own supply, as it were. I’ve criticized him in the past for not being able to coach a team from ahead, I.E. one that knows it’s good, but that hasn’t happened this year. He’s clearly got a handle on this team that he’d been lacking prior in this tenure, and it’s paying dividends as they ascend the ranks of the ACC and college football. I hope he can keep it up.