Special Teams Ups and Downs

Inside Carolina
Posted Oct 8, 2012

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – There was little doubt entering Saturday’s contest that special teams would play a determining factor in the outcome, given Larry Fedora’s and Frank Beamer’s intense emphasis on that phase of the game.

The success of “Beamerball” has been well documented over past two decades. During Beamer’s tenure, 36 different players have scored touchdowns on special teams and the Hokies have blocked 129 kicks, 17 of which have been returned for scores.

Fedora watched from a distance as he moved up through the coaching ranks, admiring the aggressive approach that Beamer demanded on special teams. With a punt return for touchdown and three punt blocks already in the stat books for UNC this season, the oft-overlooked third phase of the game was front and center at Kenan Stadium on Saturday.

After Virginia Tech scored on its first offensive series, Sean Tapley returned the ensuing kickoff 94 yards for a touchdown to strike first on special teams.

“The play was a bounce left return,” Tapley said in breaking down the touchdown. “They kicked the ball to the far right, so I knew I had to get all of the way over there. I stuck my foot in the ground and while I was going that way, the Virginia Tech players were going toward the sidelines and so I went north and south and found a crease.”

That return broke Virginia Tech’s 237-game streak of not allowing a kickoff return for touchdown dating back to 1993 (Syracuse). It was the longest streak in the nation. Through the first five games of 2012, the Hokies ranked 30th in kickoff return yardage defense, allowing 18.6 yards per return.

“I was expecting to score, but when I broke free, it was almost like I didn’t believe it for a second because their kickoff coverage team is really good,” Tapley said. “It was just a good feeling.”

Fedora, as expected, expounded on energy boost that a big play on special teams can provide.

“That ignites your team, because our guys expect to make plays in the kicking game now,” Fedora said. “They expect it. They expect a big-time play and that’s half of it, because when you believe it’s going to happen it usually does.”

Tapley totaled 152 kickoff return yards on four touches, but his final return of the first half highlighted one of the negatives for North Carolina on special teams – penalties.

A holding penalty on Erik Highsmith brought back Tapley’s 29-yard return inside the 20 with only 35 seconds left on the clock.

The Tar Heels racked up four penalties for 30 yards on special team plays and that total doesn’t include a running into the punter penalty that Virginia Tech declined. There were back-to-back false starts on UNC’s first punt attempt and a pair of holding calls on kick returns.

The Tar Heels also coughed up a turnover on special teams. With Virginia Tech trailing 28-17 and forced to punt from its own 12-yard-line, Gio Bernard called for a fair catch near midfield but muffed the attempt.

Instead of UNC having the ball inside Hokie territory with less than three minutes to play before intermission, Logan Thomas drove his team 39 yard for a field goal to pull within one score.

Demitri Knowles nearly matched Tapley's exploits with a 93-yard kickoff return for touchdown in the third quarter to cut Virginia Tech's deficit to 35-26.

North Carolina has produced five significant plays on special teams – two returns for touchdown, three blocks – in six games this season. The Tar Heels now just have to cut down on the errors that can negate the positives.

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