The Daily Tar Heel

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Wednesday December 7th

Special Teams Concern Bunting

UNC coach wants better punt returns

At his weekly press conference Tuesday, the North Carolina football coach stressed the importance of improving special teams' play in Saturday's game against Texas.

The third-ranked Longhorns boast one of the nation's most explosive punt returners in Nathan Vasher, who burned UNC last year by returning eight punts for a Texas-record 153 yards.

Vasher's 59-yard return in the first quarter a year ago put Texas in position to take an early 14-point lead, and his 44-yard return for a touchdown early in the fourth quarter mostly sealed the Longhorns' 44-14 win.

"It hurt very badly because we were in that football game," Bunting said of the first Vasher runback. "We were in that game, we had a great defense to try to match up with their great offense. We were competing with them. Their punt returner really hurt us last year."

But Syracuse's punt returners did not cause trouble for the Tar Heels in their 30-22 win Saturday, a fact that gives Bunting some reason to be optimistic. The Orangemen returned two punts for just 16 yards.

That success is more a testament to UNC's gunners than to its punter, John Lafferty. The junior is second to last in the ACC with an average of 34.5 yards per punt, and his season-long is only 42.

Bunting may opt to utilize backup punter Paul Roberts more often against Texas. Roberts had one punt for 41 yards last week.

North Carolina's punt returning has been even worse than its punting. The Tar Heels returned two punts last week, upon which Michael Waddell netted negative-one yard. The previous week, Waddell took five punts for nine yards.

"We need to do a better job with our punt return team," Bunting said. "Right now we are not doing a thing out there. We have got to make an impact with that team. That will get us some field position."

Bunting attributed some of his team's lack of punt-returning success to an inability to block the outside gunners. But Waddell did not escape blame, either.

"We had a couple punts that didn't get fielded last week, which is disturbing," Bunting said. "That haunted us a little in the beginning of last season. The punts need to be fielded. You lose too much ground when they hit the ground. Got to get done. So that's on the returner."

The kickoff return team has gotten mixed reviews from Bunting. He was satisfied with the unit's performance in the season-opener, but said it had no success at all against Syracuse, and must be better against the Longhorns.

The burden could fall on Sam Aiken, who was explosive at times on kickoffs last year, but who has returned just one kick for 18 yards this season.

The brightest special teams spot for the Tar Heels has been the kickoff coverage team, which saddled a very dangerous Syracuse return squad.

"We really got a lot better last week on the kickoff coverage," Bunting said. "That really helps. Our coverage guys did a tremendous job. They had a great week of preparation.

"We need to be great on special teams to have a chance to win here."

The Sports Editor can be reached at sports@unc.edu.

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