The North Carolina football team will look to start its season off on the right foot against Syracuse on Saturday, and their special teams unit is poised to be an integral part of doing just that. Following a 2019 season in which nine of their 13 games were decided by one possession or less, the Tar Heels know that special teams plays can be the deciding factor in any game.
The lone graduate from last year’s special teams core was Michael Rubino, who was previously a member of the Appalachian State football team from 2015 to 2018. Rubino served primarily as a kickoff specialist, totaling 18 touchbacks in the year, including a season-high of five in a 28-25 victory over Miami.
Rubino’s production will be missed, but head coach Mack Brown’s recruiting prowess was shown once again when he secured the commitment of graduate-transfer Grayson Atkins, a kicker who previously played at Furman. During his time with the Paladins, Atkins amassed 33 made field goals on 41 attempts — including a career long of 55 yards — along with being honored as an FCS All American.
Atkins will likely compete with last year’s starter, Noah Ruggles, for the starting spot as place-kicker. Ruggles converted 19 of his 27 field goal attempts last season, with a season long of 49 yards against Wake Forest.
After a season with so many games coming down to the wire, it is no surprise to see numerous position battles while Brown and his assistants are carefully combing through the depth chart to see who can make a difference on the field in the critical moments.
The punters are not immune to this trend, as newly-named special teams coordinator Jovan Dewitt will look to bolster the Tar Heels’ advantage on the defensive side of the ball by pinning opposing teams as far back as possible. 2019 starter Ben Kiernan is competing with sophomore Jonathan Kim, the former having averaged 41.3 yards per punt as a first-year, while Kim brings experience as a kickoff specialist from last year.
In the kickoff return game, the Tar Heels will likely look to senior running back Michael Carter, who gained 466 of his 1,623 all-purpose yards on kick returns last season. Junior wide receiver Rontavius Groves will likely work in tandem with Carter as the main kick returners. Senior wide receiver Dazz Newsome could handle the bulk of the punt returns, while Groves and first-year wide receiver Josh Downs are expected to get opportunities as well.
Special teams are infamous in football for only being noticed when their job is done poorly, and if UNC is to take that next step and contend for an ACC Championship this season, they must be sound in this area. The Tar Heels’ special teams unit may well be the difference-maker on a team that tends to find itself in more nail-biters than it might like.
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