Special Teams Making Plays

Special Teams Making Plays

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Two weeks ago, Larry Fedora told his players to expect a fake punt from N.C. State. Prior to Saturday's win over Virginia, the second-year UNC head coach informed his team of a dream he had the night before in which Ryan Switzer returned a punt for touchdown.

In the moments following Switzer's 85-yard touchdown return, Jabari Price and his teammates could only muster puzzled looks with one question on their minds: "What the heck?"

Call Fedora's foreshadowing a form of prophecy or call it a fluke. It doesn't really matter. In reality, it likely speaks to a head coach that places a tremendous amount of importance on game-changing plays in special teams – UNC's goal is one such play each contest – that hadn't seen those results in the first half of the season.

Consider those prognostications as nothing more than the inception of positive thinking, a way of willing game-changing plays to occur. As kooky as that may sound, Fedora actually has some evidence now to back it up.

"Really, it boils down to just believing that it's going to happen," Fedora told reporters on Monday. "If you believe it's going to happen, it will happen. I think this group for whatever reason, I think some of them from last year's success in the special teams thought it'll just happen. Well you've got to make it happen. You've got to believe it's going to happen. You can't just say it's going to happen."

Special teams represents the third and least-heralded phase of football. Limited opportunities are spread out amongst offensive and defensive possessions, which is an angle that Fedora has latched onto with his roster.

UNC's special teams motto is basic and to the point: One play and out.

"On a special teams unit, you're out there for one play," Fedora said. "One play and you go off the field and you go to offense or defense. So it's one play and out. On this play – the 4-5-6-7 seconds that it takes – it's the most important play of the game and you make it that way. You play it that way."

That emphasis played out during Switzer's punt return as the final 20 yards consisted of the rookie running with a convoy of teammates.

"I showed that to the entire team yesterday not because of what Switzer did, but because of what the other 10 guys did," Fedora said. "When the ball hit Switzer's hands, if you stop the tape, we had 10 guys on 10 guys. The only guy that didn't have a guy on him was the punter, which we don't have him accounted for. And every guy was exactly where they were supposed to be on their guy."

Fedora talked about catching magic when good things start happening, which actually seems to fit with his recent penchant for predicting game-changing plays on special teams.

"We talk about making one game-changing play on special teams every week and we didn't make one all season long until N.C. State," Price said. "And those are the little things that you get you a win against Miami or Virginia Tech or Georgia Tech. It was frustrating, but we finally got it and guys are finally starting to buy into it. [We're] looking for that special teams play instead of waiting on someone else to make it."

UNC's special teams play has been solid this season despite the lack of weekly game-changing plays. The Tar Heels rank 21st nationally in net punting (39.1 ypp), 23rd in punt returns (12.4 ypr), 57th in kickoff returns (21.9 ypr) and 87th in kickoff return defense (22.7 ypr).

Individually, Thomas Hibbard ranks third in ACC games in punting (43.7 ypp) and Switzer ranks third in punt return average (11.9 ypr).

One area for concern resides in the field goal unit. Placekicker Thomas Moore has missed three of his last seven field goal attempts, including a 38-yarder against Virginia, after making his first five to start the season.

Special teams will be critical yet again in Pittsburgh on Saturday. Price termed Fedora's string of predictions as "scary" on Monday. A third one in a row may elicit even stronger adjectives come Saturday night.

 

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