Booming Away

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – North Carolina punter Tommy Hibbard has been a model of consistency since he took over the starting job in 2011 and will once again provide this team a unique advantage on special teams in 2014.

For the second straight season, Hibbard has been named to the preseason watch list for the Ray Guy Award (given to the nation’s top punter).

“It’s my second year being on the list, and I would like to win the award, but that isn’t my main goal,” Hibbard said recently. “The most important thing is helping my teammates and coaches win games.”

UNC head coach Larry Fedora, who places a significant emphasis on special teams in general, discussed about the benefits of having such a complete player at his disposal.

“Tommy’s got a good leg, and he knows what we’re trying to do, so he understands all of our schemes,” Fedora said. ”[On Thursday], we were working pooch, we had three live reps, and all three he put inside the 10-yard line.”

Before Hibbard earned the starting job, the Tar Heels’ punting game was in a state of disarray. From 2008 to 2010, UNC’s highest national ranking in net punting was 70th with 35.23-yard average. The kicking situation hit bottom in 2010 when the average dropped down to a paltry 31.79 (116th in the country).

Hibbard wrestled the starting job away from C.J. Feagles as a walk-on in 2011. His first season marked a solid improvement (he averaged 39.2 yards per punt) for the team, and his confidence at such a young age was a positive sign of what was to come.

The Charlotte, N.C. native really came into his own in 2012 (averaging 43 yards per punt), earning second-team All-ACC honors. In 2013, he replicated the exact same punting average (the fourth-best in the conference and 28th-best of all FBS punters) on his way to being an all-ACC Honorable Mention selection.

The importance of special teams is a facet of the game that is often overlooked by analysts and fans alike. That being said, Hibbard is just as driven to contribute as any other player.

“Last year I didn’t have as good a year personally,” Hibbard said. “But this offseason I’ve really worked on adding distance to my punts. I’ve worked a lot with strength coach Lou Hernandez about stretching myself out… You just can’t take days off. I’ve worked on taking care of my legs, but if you take days off, you really forget how to get things done and succeed.”

In 13 games last season, Hubbard downed 25 of his 65 punts inside the 20-yard line. It is that type of preciseness that will alleviate some of the pressure on the UNC defense.

“I know it’s a big advantage,” Hibbard said. “Putting the ball inside the 10 and being able to flip the field, and forcing opponents to have to go on long drives against our defense.”

Having a quality punter, however, isn’t the only successful component to having a complete punt team. As a whole, the unit ranked fourth in the country in punt return average (just 2.89 yards per return). When asked about what has made him so successful, the four-year starter pointed to his coverage unit.

“I have to give a lot of credit to the guys that are out there with me,” Hibbard said. “They do a great job of getting down there and not overshooting the returners for the other team.”

Hibbard book ends the punting spectrum for UNC with All-America punt returner Ryan Switzer on the other end. The senior punter offered his perspective on how to limit Switzer’s effectiveness.

“There are two ways I could try and approach it,” Hibbard said. “The first way would be to put a lot of hang time on the ball and I’d make sure the punt team knew not to outrun the coverage, because when that happens, Ryan is even more dangerous. The other way to do it would be to send a low rugby style kick that bounced on the ground a lot so that he would have to work hard to pick up the ball.”

That type of detail and awareness comes with 37 games of experience. Hibbard also serves as the starting holder for field goals and PATs, which affords him the opportunity to count the box and decide whether UNC will kick or go for two.

“He understands the situations, not just practice,” Fedora said. “This is critical, this is how we pin people, this is a big play for us, we’re eating up chunks of yardage, we’re gathering ground. He knows that, and I think he’s taken it to heart, and he’s doing a really good job with it.”

Hibbard is on track to become just the fourth punter in school history to lead the team in punting average for four consecutive seasons, joining Charlie Justice, Scott McAlister and David Wooldridge.

 

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