As the North Carolina football team prepares for the season that lies ahead, head coach Mack Brown and the rest of the coaching staff are hoping to tune up all facets of the game — even the ones that get overlooked by fans.
Although many spectators tend to look past special teams, it will be an important component to the Tar Heels' success this season.
Following the offseason departure of former special teams coach Jovan Dewitt, running backs coach Larry Porter will now take over the unit while maintaining his running back duties. While Porter will now be handling two different position groups, it is worth noting that he has experience in both fields, serving as the special teams coach for Auburn from 2017 through 2020.
Porter won't be the only person stepping into a new role. After the graduation of former kicker Grayson Atkins, the Tar Heels will be looking for a new starter. Currently, that job is expected to go to senior Jonathan Kim, with sophomore Noah Burnette close behind him on the depth chart.
Kim doesn't have much experience as a placekicker. During his time in Chapel Hill, Kim is 0-for-1 in field goal tries, yet 3-for-3 in extra point attempts. Despite the limited attempts, Brown has given Kim his vote of confidence by praising the way he has handled both kickoffs and kicking in big moments.
Transitioning over to the punting squad, two players are expected to compete for the starting job — first-year Cole Maynard and senior Ben Kiernan.
Brown has stated that the team is still not sure who will be the starter for the Tar Heels, and he will need to see which one is more impressive before making a decision. Kiernan has more experience than Maynard — punting a significant amount throughout all of the past three seasons — so he seems to be in line for the majority of the reps early in the season.
Long snapper Drew Little is set to return for his senior season. Little earned his spot on the All-ACC Preseason Second Team earlier this year.
With some of the other positions in a state of flux, the Tar Heels will be without one of their key special teams players in senior running back British Brooks, who suffered a season-ending injury last week.
While Brooks' absence will certainly impact the run game — the Gastonia, N.C. native was projected to be the starter — Brown said he believes this will hurt the special teams unit as well.
Brooks played an integral role in special teams throughout his entire career at UNC and was named special teams MVP and special teams captain in each of the past two seasons, tallying 17 tackles on special teams over his college career.
While this is certainly an obstacle the team will have to overcome heading into the season, the Tar Heels have recruited a lot of talent that can potentially make up for Brooks' absence.
Coming off a bowl loss and a 6-7 season, the Tar Heels are reloading as they head into 2022. Although there may be a few questions about some aspects of the special teams unit, the young talent and potential that some of these players have shown in games and in practices is something to watch closely this year, as the team looks to turn an unknown component into one of its strengths.
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