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March 27, 2013

Spring Breakdown: Special Teams

While it doesn't get nearly the attention it should as such as important part of winning football, rest assured that Larry Fedora is giving special teams plenty of attention this spring as the Tar Heels engage in workouts.

Fedora is very hands-on as a head coach when it comes to special teams, serving personally as the position coach for that group.

And during practice, one can see Fedora watching intently as special teams drills of all kinds are conducted, whether they're kickoff and punt returns, or field goal attempts.

"Who are we going to be on special teams?" Fedora said earlier this spring, expressing his own sense of urgency that spots get filled.

Specifically, Carolina has to replace one of the more reliable field goal kickers in school history in Casey Barth, a four-year starter for the Tar Heels, as well as the team's electric punt returner Giovani Bernard, who is off to the NFL.

"We had four or five guys working on it (punt returns in practice). It was good to see," Fedora said. "Romar (Morris) jumped out there---he wants to return punts. We had Tim Scott, Tre Boston. We have a bunch of guys who want to do it, and they didn't want to do it last year. So that's the whole point of understanding the importance of special teams."

"Guys realize what Gio was able to accomplish, and how that's going to help his career. So now guys are saying, 'Hey, I want to do it.'"

Morris, Scott, and Boston are all decent options for UNC to replace Bernard, and they may also be possibilities on kickoff returns. The Tar Heels get a tough break when T.J. Thorpe injured his left foot, forcing him to miss this spring after missing all of the 2012 season.

Without Thorpe, the kickoff return job is open as well this spring for the Tar Heels.

"T.J. Thorpe, he's hurt again. He's a big, valuable part to our kickoff return team, but there's just a next guy that's going to have to step up and take the job," said senior running back A.J. Blue, who likely won't be the top option to return kicks if he's the No. 1 back unless the coaches feel they have no other choice.

Morris, a speedster who also participates in track at North Carolina, is a logical choice to return kicks and perhaps punts as well.

"He (Morris) is still involved in track. Yeah, he's still involved in track, but he still does everything in football," said Fedora.

While the absence of Bernard and Thorpe doesn't make UNC's return game ideal this spring, it is comforting to know that there are veterans like Morris, Boston, and Scott, among others, who are ready and willing to step into those roles.

The return game should get a boost come summer, when T.J. Logan and Ryan Switzer arrive. Both of them could be possibilities in the return game.

In the kicking game, it appears that rising junior walk-on Thomas Moore, a local native of Chapel Hill, has fought his way to the top of the depth chart for the time being.

It's a strange time in Chapel Hill without a Barth on the UNC roster for the first time since the 2003 season, but Moore is looking forward to the opportunity to carry on their legacy and step into their place.

Moore has a strong leg but it hasn't been terribly consistent his first couple of seasons, which is why he wasn't able to supplant Barth as the starter when Barth was healthy.

But in 2011 Moore had no choice but to step in when Barth was injured, and the newcomer converted six of 10 field goal attempts, and all 38 of his extra point attempts. His extra point kicking was certainly reliable, but his erratic field goal kicking didn't make him the most dependable option at the time.

Last season Moore went back to a reserve role on field goals and extra points behind Barth until the final three games of the season. In those final 2012 games Moore made two of three field goals and all 12 extra point attempts.

It's helpful from UNC's standpoint that Moore does have game experience and he has converted kicks on gamedays with the pressure on. Now he's got to step up and ensure the coaches and his teammates that he can be relied upon to stick the ball between the uprights and come through when the Tar Heels need him.

Walk-ons Nick Weiler and Joey Mangili, as well as scholarship kicker Miller Snyder, are among those battling for playing time behind Moore. All of them are getting reps this spring in practice.

Moore's ability to stick the ball through the uprights is obviously a pretty big deal, but so is his ability to ensure decent defensive field position for Carolina on kickoffs by either putting the ball into or through the end zone for a touchback, or by kicking the ball into the deep corner near the goal line, thereby making a long kickoff return more difficult.

Moore has struggled booting the ball through the end zone in his UNC career so far, and if that's still the case he really needs to try and do what Barth did, which was modify his kicking to drop the ball in the corner near the goal line if he can't get it to the end zone.

With the uncertainty at the place kicker role, there is a helpful presence this spring at the holder spot, as starting punter Thomas Hibbard returns to again handle that role for Carolina.

Hibbard, of course, is also a vital weapon for UNC in the punter's position, and he's now heading into his third year as Carolina's starter.

Hibbard gives the Tar Heels a certain measure of comfort and reliability at the holder and punter spots, giving UNC a proven gameday contributor and producer. He clearly got better from his freshman year to his sophomore year, averaging nearly four more yards per attempt from 2011 to 2012.

He got roughly the same amount of punt attempts both season (51 in 2011, 50 in 2012), but he averaged 43.0 yards per attempt in 2012, compared to 39.2 in 2011. Hibbard's punting average ranked second in the Atlantic Coast Conference a year ago, and the Tar Heel junior has a good chance of earning preseason All-ACC recognition heading into 2013.

At the long snapper position, UNC is looking to work in a couple of players, including rising senior Mack Lloyd and redshirt freshman Conor Fry, to replace the departed Parker Thomas.

So far this spring Lloyd has been getting most of the 'first team' repetitions snapping on field goals, and it looks like he's settling in for that job heading into the 2013 season.

Fry was highly-regarded as a snapper coming out of high school, so we'll be interested to see if he can push Lloyd at all, and if he competes for the starting role as the long snapper on punts.

Carolina's special teams is a mixture of reliability and uncertainty this spring, but the good thing is that there are able bodies, many of them game-tested, looking to step into the jobs left behind by the likes of Barth, Bernard, and Thomas.





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