clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

UNC Football: Position Preview - Special Teams

Some old, some new, some questions as we wrap up our preseason position previews

North Carolina v Virginia Photo by Ryan M. Kelly/Getty Images

The attention regarding UNC’s 2022 football team was largely on either a high-flying offense or a disastrously bad defense. It seems only right that in the third phase of the game, last year’s Heels were pretty much average. Average doesn’t mean boring, though, and you’ll see in a second that this phase was quite the adventure for Mack Brown’s team a season ago. And while a lot of last year’s special teams production is returning, that doesn’t mean things are settled. This final entry of the series for on-field units shouldn’t disappoint, so without further ado, let’s begin!

Key Losses

The big name here, as elsewhere, is wide receiver/punt returner Josh Downs, who shouldered the double loads of being UNC’s most productive receiver and regular punt returner over the past two years. Downs was a good punt returner in 2021 and a borderline elite one in 2022, unofficially ranking 7th in the country with 13.3 yards per return (he didn’t qualify for the leaderboards because of lack of attempts. What that says about the number of punts UNC forced, I’ll let you decide). He never housed a return, but consistently created shorter fields for his offense to work with and will be tough to replace after his departure to the NFL.

Cam Kelly is also gone, and while he wasn’t a regular special teams contributor, he did fill in at punt returner during Downs’ injury absence and acquitted himself well, averaging nearly 13 yards per return himself on his 5 attempts. More to the point, it means that the staff probably doesn’t have a backup punt returner they’ve been grooming, the way Downs came in for Dazz Newsome before him.

Key Returnees

All of UNC’s specialists return from last year: super-senior punter Ben Kiernan, junior kicker Noah Burnette, super-senior long snapper Drew Little, and junior long snapper Spencer Triplett. Little and Kiernan have been stalwarts as a punting unit for the past three years, with Kiernan earning All-ACC Third Team honors as a senior last year after averaging 46.8 yards per punt to lead the ACC. I’d like for his trajectory to be just a little less flat, as his punts are returnable more often than is ideal, but he definitely took a step from decent to very good in 2022. I’m not sure Little has put a snap awry since he got to Chapel Hill, certainly not since he was a sophomore.

Kicking, on the other hand, was less rosy. In his first year as UNC’s starting kicker, Noah Burnette... did not inspire confidence. He hit 15 of his 21 field goal attempts, and a 71.4% conversion rate is pretty bad even as college kickers go. Worse to me, though, is that he was 3/4 in the 20-29 yard range and an atrocious 5/9 in the 30-39 yard range. The first might be excused for small sample size, but the second just kills you as a coach. Those are kicks you’re taking from the back half of the red zone — not getting points almost half the time you’re forced to kick is absolutely brutal, and has to have been the primary reason UNC’s kicking efficiency per Football Outsiders’ FEI was 95th in the country. The Heels were pretty decent in about every other special teams metric that FEI measures, with the exception of kickoffs... which were also handled by Burnette for most of the season. There are signs he could be better, notably his 5/5 mark on 40-49 yarders (albeit with just one of those attempts past 45 yards) and a good 57/58 mark on extra points, but he’s firmly in “show me” territory at the moment.

UNC used freshman running backs Omarion Hampton and George Pettaway as kickoff returners last year and I see no reason why they shouldn’t continue to do so this year. Pettaway in particular showed some real juice towards the end of the season, including a 56-yarder against Oregon.

Holding things together is running backs coach/special teams coach Larry Porter, back for his second year on the job. I thought Porter did good work improving the Heels’ kickoff and punt coverage teams this year and feel much more comfortable with him as a special teams coach than with running backs, where he’s been a mixed bag.

Key Newcomers

It seems the staff wasn’t wholly comfortable with Burnette, either, as they grabbed Ryan Coe as a grad transfer out of Cincinnati. Coe hit 19 of his 23 field goals for the Bearcats last year after transferring there from Delaware, and only missed two kicks within 39 yards against 16 makes. He’s got a big leg, with multiple makes from 50+ yards out in his career, and has never missed an extra point. Recalling that the jump in competition from Furman to UNC gave Grayson Atkins a ton of trouble his first year, I’d still have to think that smart money is on Coe to take Burnette’s job by next Saturday if he hasn’t already.

There’s going to be a competition for the new punt returner job that will probably involve Pettaway and some other twitchy athletes on the roster, but Nate McCollum, the transfer receiver out of Georgia Tech, returned some punts last year for the Yellow Jackets at about 11 yards a clip, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see that experience give him a leg up on his teammates for the gig.


The floor for UNC’s special teams unit seems fairly well set at average, maybe a smidge above. Downs will be tough to replace, but UNC’s got a stable of twitchy athletes to at least be good in the punt returns department, so that softens the blow. Everywhere else, the Heels have continuity from last year with players who are either already very good or are green enough where you can expect improvement, and a special teams coach with another year to make sure his guys are all on the same page. At worst, things stagnate and UNC’s third phase is average again. At best, either Burnette shakes off those first-year foibles or Coe takes over and turns field goal kicking into a dependable source of points on the plus side of the field, and combined with solid performance in all other phases, UNC’s special teams is a good unit that can legitimately start helping it win games.