California JuCo transfer Terrence Brown developed a reputation for getting the most possible bounce and roll out of every punt during the 2007 season, and the results were evident. The surfer transplant ranked 45th nationally in punting (41.4 ypp) and helped North Carolina finish 45th in net punting (36.1 ypp).
Those good-humored laughs in the press box in '07, however, were soon replaced by head scratching and audible guffaws as shanks, miss hits and inconsistency plagued the Tar Heel punting unit for the next four years.
North Carolina's highest national ranking in net punting during that span was 70th in 2009 with a 35.23 average. The 2010 squad finished 116th in net punting (31.79).
After C.J. Feagles beat out Grant Schallock for the job in 2010, freshman walk-on Thomas Hibbard only needed a month last fall to unseat Feagles as UNC's starter. That's not to say there wasn't a significant learning curve, though. Hibbard averaged 39.2 yards per punt (77th nationally) with 16 inside the 20, 14 fair catches and three touchbacks.
With a year under his belt, Hibbard is becoming a consistent weapon for first-year head coach Larry Fedora.
The Charlotte, N.C. product is averaging 42.4 yards on 14 punts this season, including six inside the 20, four fair catches and just one touchback. His long is 60 yards with four over 50.
Hibbard, who checks in at 5-foot-10, 195 pounds, added some weight during the offseason. Strength and conditioning coach Lou Hernandez has his kickers lift heavier weights with more stretching, which provides a sharp contrast to former S&C coach Tom Myslinski's approach of lighter weights and higher repetition counts.
"I've been working on my placement a lot," Hibbard told InsideCarolina.com this week. "I'm trying to get more height on the ball so that my guys can get down there and cover. They've been doing a great job doing that so far, which has helped me out a lot."
Hibbard averaged 44.2 yards on four punts against East Carolina last Saturday, but those statistics are a little deceptive. Kicking from East Carolina's side of the field in the fourth quarter, the sophomore angled a 31-yard punt out of bounds at the 13-yard-line. His other three punts averaged out to 48.7 yards per kick.
Fellow sophomore linebacker Tommy Heffernan noticed a change in Hibbard's production during preseason practice.
"Hibbard, after last year, got a lot more comfortable," Heffernan said. "He had a great training camp. He was kicking the ball like crazy. It's huge because it's field position. If the defense is going out and they're already on the 40, then it's not as good, but getting them pinned back on their 10 or 15, it gives the defense a lot of energy. We're able to come out and say, ‘Let's make a play and get a quick turnover and give the offense the ball back.'"
Fedora praised Hibbard's performance thus far earlier this week, especially regarding his ability to get more height on the ball, but he also highlighted a change in approach that his punter has welcomed.
"The great thing about it is that Tommy can do all of the things we're asking him to do, which is a big deal," Fedora said. "He's not just having to stand back there and punt the ball. So for him to be able to do all of the things we're asking him to do back there, that's a big plus for us and that enables us to be a good punt team."
So what's the change, you may be asking?
Special teams coordinator David Duggan has installed a shield punt protection formation, which consists of seven players on the line of scrimmage, three players occupying the middle shield seven yards back and then the punter in his standard spot 15 yards behind the ball. The players on the line of scrimmage are split three yards wide, putting them closer to – or already in – their assigned coverage lanes.
This set accomplishes several goals. One, it effectively pushes end rushers out of the play if they try to come around the edge and also provides two layers of blocking support. Secondly, the formation allows the special teams coordinator to vary his punter's launch points instead of standing in the same position on every punt.
Against East Carolina, Hibbard rolled out several steps to his right before punting the ball in a rugby-style action on three of his four kicks. The fourth punt, which was pinned at ECU's 13, was a traditional drop and kick. An additional option forces punt block teams to second-guess their decision.
Fedora's previous school, Southern Miss, offered a perfect example of the possible confusion in its win at Virginia in 2011.
The Golden Eagles were facing a 4th-and-15 from their own eight-yard-line, down 13-7 in the second quarter. UVa overloaded the left side of USM's line with six players going for the block, but punter Danny Hrapmann apparently had been given a read-option on the right edge defender.
When that defender dropped back into coverage once the ball was snapped, Hrapmann rolled out right and ran up the right sideline with six blockers (three shield, three LOS) in front of him blocking four Cavaliers.
Hrapmann stepped out of bounds after a 31-yard gain and a Southern Miss first down.
Now that Hibbard is growing accustomed to the rollout, he's able to gauge the punt rush and can buy extra time, if needed.
"When I see that they're not rushing, I'll take a couple of seconds longer so that my guys can get down the field, but if I know that they're going to be rushing, then I'm going to get it off quick," Hibbard said.
When asked on his radio show on Tuesday which area of the team had improved the most since spring ball, Fedora didn't hesitate: "Kicking game, no doubt about it."
"We have come a long way in our kicking game," he continued. "Not just in the performance, but just in the attitude of our players and understanding the importance of it and people fighting to get on those teams. We do things a little bit different. Our special teams starters, they ride the first bus. They're the first ones that get up and eat at all of our meals so they are special and we make sure everybody knows it."
North Carolina had a known quantity in placekicker Casey Barth entering the 2012 season. Hibbard is doing his part to solidify a punting unit that has struggled in recent years.
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