North Carolina totaled 260 yards on nine punt returns in routing Elon, topping the previous league record (227 by Clemson in 1987) on Roy Smith’s 20-yard return with 11:51 to play.
Gio Bernard’s 70-yard touchdown sprint will get plenty of ink and for good reason, but it wasn’t as though UNC loaded up on a handful of lengthy punt returns.
Bernard’s first return was good for 30 yards. Smith led the unit with six returns for 127 yards, including a long of 28, and Erik Highsmith added a 33-yard return inside Elon’s 15-yard line.
North Carolina’s shortest return on the day was 15 yards. UNC averaged 4.11 yards per punt return in 2011, good for last in the ACC and 108th nationally.
Saturday’s display occurred against an incredibly overmatched Elon program, no doubt. There’s still plenty of value to be gleaned from the performance, though, especially when you consider that North Carolina’s preseason depth chart consisted of T.J. Thorpe, Reggie Wilkins and Todd Harrelson – two of whom are injured and one who is no longer on the team.
Bernard, Smith and Highsmith all registered their first career punt returns on Saturday.
Head coach Larry Fedora asked a packed media room on the fifth floor of the Kenan Football Center how many of us had returned a punt in our life. Junior high and high school ball notwithstanding, there was only one reporter that raised his hand.
“You know what it’s like when you stand back there in front of however many thousands of people and your head is up in the air and you know there are 11 guys that all want to take your head off and the ball is moving around up there…
“To see all of them handle to ball very solidly back there was impressive. And Roy Smith. When was the last time Roy Smith touched a football in a game? I don’t know. I don’t know when that was, but to get out there in that situation and make some plays with the ball in his hands I thought was very impressive.”
One interesting aspect regarding the punt return unit is that Fedora, not an assistant coach, is responsible for its instruction during practice and meetings.
Fedora downplayed that significance in Saturday’s success, but acknowledged that he takes a lot of pride in the returners’ production.
“It’s the one thing that I really get to coach,” Fedora said. “I’m around the offensive guys, but I don’t have a position to coach. I’m just stepping on toes all the time, but the punt return unit is my unit so I get to coach them and we talked about making a game changing play in this game and being the unit that gets to do that. Fortunately they made some plays. It’ll be interesting to see on film.”
Let’s end with this glaring statistic – North Carolina totaled 58 more punt return yards against Elon than it did in 26 games in 2010 and 2011.
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