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2017 National Signing Day Review: The Importance of the Kicking Game

By bringing in two kickers this recruiting class, the Tar Heel coaching staff addressed an area that has been crucial for the team in recent years.

NCAA Football: North Carolina at South Carolina Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

This past week, the UNC football team announced the signing of two kickers to their 2017 recruiting class. Noah Ruggles and Cooper Graham both committed to UNC in order to compete for the starting kick-off and field goal kicker positions (along with a couple of other kickers already on the team). Ruggles was offered a scholarship, while Graham is a preferred walk-on to the program.

Most people that follow college football recruiting or that get excited for National Signing Day usually focus on the number of stars that players have along the offensive or defensive lines, in the defensive backfield, and at offensive skilled positions. However, little attention is ever paid to the special teams’ recruits, and more specifically, the kickers.

Ruggles comes in as the fifth ranked kicker in the country by Kohl’s Kicking, and “possibly the sleeper prospect in the 2017 class.” Graham comes in as the 15th ranked kicker in the country by Chris Sailer Kicking, and was called “one of the very best kickers in the nation.”

Despite getting little attention in recruiting, many kickers end up being household names to football fans. Many are either fan favorites because of winning kicks they made, or they are scapegoats because of a kick that sails wide right at the end of a game. In recent history, field goal kickers have played an important role on the UNC football team. Names like Dan Orner, Jeff Reed, Connor and Casey Barth, and Nick Weiler, each have had big moments in UNC football history (see below).

Ruggles and Graham are joining a fraternity of kickers at UNC who have not only https://twitter.com/EricFisherSBJ/status/826919290163052546 program, but have been a rather consistent/accurate group that has provided stability to the position.

Career Field Goal Percentage at UNC

Orner - 70%

Reed - 77.8%

Connor Barth - 76.1%

Casey Barth - 80.5%

Weiler - 76.9%

When Weiler struggled to kick field goals just a few seasons back in 2014, we all saw the effect that it had on the offense and team. Coach Fedora only allowed him to kick eight field goals on the season, and he hardly ever attempted a kick outside the 30-yard line. In 2015, Weiler turned things around, as his accuracy improved. He was not just a kick-off specialist with a strong leg, but someone the team and Coach Fedora could count on to come through in the clutch. He led the team in scoring (127) in 2015, and he connected on seven out of ten from 40+ yards out in 2016 (including the game winner, seen above, against FSU), so what was once a liability for the Tar Heels soon became an additional weapon to a high-powered offense.

The importance of having a good kicking game doesn't just fall to the field goal kicker, but to the punter as well. Coach Fedora surprised everyone last year by bringing over Tom Sheldon from Australia. Sheldon went on to solidify a position that had been an area of weakness for the Tar Heels, and he far surpassed expectations. He finished the season with an average of 42.7 yards per punt, and was named to the FWAA Freshman All-America team. He was a part of the group that was ranked as the number one punt return defense, and none of his punts were returned for longer than three yards. Sheldon was relied upon to flip field position and pin offenses inside their own 20-yard line, and he succeeded in doing each of those things last year.

Coach Fedora may have surprised fans this past week by offering a scholarship to a kicker, and by having two kickers to come out of this class. However, by bringing in two kickers, and ones with such high rankings and praise, Coach Fedora recognizes the importance of having a good kicking game and that it can lead to success on the field.