While a football team's special teams unit can be overlooked compared to other position groups, it does the little things for a team to complete a winning performance.
With tough games on the schedule such as a home matchup against No. 14 Miami and a road game against No. 9 Notre Dame, one kick could decide the game, and ultimately UNC’s record and bowl game placement.
UNC and special teams coordinator Jovan Dewitt return both graduate student kicker Grayson Atkins and junior punter Ben Kiernan for another season in Carolina Blue, maintaining some continuity at the kicking positions.
Although Atkins had a rough start to his first season as a Tar Heel, missing five field goals in his first six games, he ended off strongly, converting on 10 of his last 12 field goals. In total, Atkins made 12 field goals out of 18 attempts with a long of 51 yards, showing that he has the leg to make it from long distance.
A bright spot for Atkins is his extra point kicking. He was automatic last season, making all 63 of his PAT attempts, showing his great consistency from point blank range. When closing out drives, Atkins is virtually automatic.
To round out the kicking group, junior kicker Jonathan Kim will resume his kick-off duties as one of the best in the nation, leading college football with 76 touchbacks last season.
For the punt team, Kiernan is coming off of a fantastic season where he averaged 43.7 yards per punt in ten games, with his longest punt being 62 yards.
His best game came against No. 2 Notre Dame, where he averaged 50.6 yards on seven punts with five landing inside the 20 yard line. His performance against the Fighting Irish earned him the Ray Guy Award Top 4 Player for the week.
He even starts this season on the 2021 Ray Guy Award watch list, proving that Kiernan is a gem for head coach Mack Brown to have in the special teams game.
In the return game, Tar Heel fans will see some new faces with the loss of Dazz Newsome and Michael Carter.
Insert Josh Downs, the Orange Bowl breakout star who will be handling punt returns this season. The speedy sophomore wideout will hope to get into space to set up Sam Howell and the offense with great field position, and possibly break one open for a touchdown.
Assuming the Michael Carter role on kickoffs will be graduate transfer running back Ty Chandler, who returned kicks at Tennessee. In his kickoff career, Chandler had 724 return yards, including a 91-yard touchdown his freshman year.
Another name to lookout for on kickoffs is sophomore defensive back Ja’Qurious Conley. He is listed second on the depth chart behind Chandler and will be right by his side come kickoff time.
Brown is ready to get his special teams unit out of the middle of the ACC rankings. With his kicker and punter returning and some explosiveness and speed filling in at the return positions, the team might will likely get the boost it is looking for.
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