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Analysis: UNC's special teams unit looks to build upon progress made last year

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UNC graduate kicker Ryan Coe (40) kicks the ball during a UNC football practice on Aug. 16, 2023. Photo Courtesy of Carolina Athletics.

The North Carolina football special teams unit saw growth in key areas in 2022 under new coordinator Larry Porter. 

During Porter’s first season in the role, UNC averaged the ACC's second-most yards per punt return, at 13.3 — a jump from the fifth-most in 2021.

Kickoff returns also saw an improvement. In 2021, UNC’s 19 yards per kickoff return was the second-lowest in the ACC. In 2022, the Tar Heels surged to the fourth-highest average at 23.7 yards per return.

Last season also saw the ascent of graduate punter Ben Kiernan, whose 46.8 yards per punt was the best in the ACC. His performances helped take North Carolina from the second-worst punting team in the conference in 2021 to the second-best in 2022.

Kiernan, who made third-team All-ACC for his efforts in 2022, will return to Chapel Hill this fall and will maintain his spot as starting punter. 

Other starting positions are in question, however, as the special teams unit juggles roster changes and deficiencies in key areas.

Return defense

Out of 131 teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision, UNC allowed the 22nd most yards per kickoff return and the 62nd most yards per punt return in 2022.

Graduate running back British Brooks, who missed last season due to an ACL injury, will aim to bolster the Tar Heels' performance in this department in the fall. 

Named special teams captain and MVP in 2020 and 2021, Brooks said at fall camp that what makes a good special teams player is not wanting to be beaten. He hopes to bring that mentality back to UNC’s return defense in 2023.

Kick and punt returns

Last season, then-first-year-running backs George Pettaway and Omarion Hampton each made seven kick returns, notching 221 and 151 total yards, respectively. The current kick return depth chart indicates no change for this season.

Meanwhile, the punt return game will be missing a key figure from last season: wide receiver Josh Downs.

Downs, who was selected 79th in the 2023 NFL Draft, averaged 13.3 yards per punt return in 2022. Graduate defensive back Alijah Huzzie, a transfer from East Tennessee State, was named the starting punt returner. In his three seasons with the Buccaneers, Huzzie totaled 26 returns for 313 yards.

New starting kicker

In 2022, junior kicker Noah Burnette took all of UNC’s points after touchdown and field goal kicks, along with most of the team’s kickoffs.

However, on Monday, head coach Mack Brown named graduate Ryan Coe as the starting kicker for Saturday's season opener against South Carolina.

A transfer from Cincinnati, Coe went 19-23 on field goal attempts in 2022 — a mark that set a school record for field goal accuracy. Coe’s 82.6 percent accuracy beats out Burnette’s 71.4 percent accuracy from last season. 

Where Burnette may have the upper hand is field goals from 40-49 yards. Burnette went 5-5 on field goals from this range last year, while Coe went 2-4.

Brown said at fall camp that he felt North Carolina's kicking game and kickers had been inconsistent in 2022. Between Brown’s comments and last year’s statistics, UNC will look to Coe for now to improve its kicking.

@dmtwumasi

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@DTHSports | sports@dailytarheel.com