Linebackers: Position Rebuilt
Running backs coach Andre’ Powell, in his fifth year at UNC, took over duties as special teams coordinator following the departure of James Webster. While Powell has coached special teams many times before during his 17 years in the business, this is the first time he has been put in charge of the department.
And while he oversees the organization and day-to-day routine, as well as coaches the punt and kickoff return teams; he’s delegated the authority of leading the kickoff coverage team to linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen, and defensive ends coach Brad Lawing is in charge of the punt return team.
Overall, Powell says UNC now has the talent to go with the proper mindset to make this a special year for “teams.”
“In the past we’ve had some good players that didn’t like to be on special teams; it was kind of a chore,” Powell said. “The next couple of years, particularly 2002 and 2003, we lost so many players and we just weren’t talented enough. Now I think we’ve got a combination of talent and guys who really want to do well.”
Now players arrive at the nightly special teams’ meeting early. It’s no longer drudgery. Powell says that kind of dedication makes him more effective.
“They want to know what we’re doing and how they did,” he said. “When you have guys like that, it makes it a lot easier to coach.”
And the UNC coaches don’t just look primarily to underclassmen to fill spots on coverage and return teams either. Some programs do, but not the Tar Heels.
“That has been a misconception,” Powell said. “Some people do that and can get away with it. We put our best players out there.”
As far as specialists go, Carolina appears to be in great shape with sophomore kicker Connor Barth and junior punter David Wooldridge locked in at their respective positions.
Not content to rest on his laurels, Barth spent time this summer working with former UNC kicker Jeff Reed of the Pittsburgh Steelers. The two used biometric bands to improve their flexibility, and also did squats – lots of them.
“It really helped us,” Barth said. “I just continue to work harder and get better. I cannot become complacent. I have to keep working hard every day. There is always someone out there who is doing what I’m doing.”
His coach has seen already seen a difference.
“His leg is much stronger than it was at the end of last season,” Powell said. “I think his technique is much better than what it was last season. He’s always been a confident kid, but now he’s even more confident.”
On the other hand, no one has seen much of Wooldridge these days, as he has been sick and missed the beginning of training camp. When he does return, Powell wants to see him work on his hang time and avoid out-kicking his coverage. Wooldridge has plenty of leg – that’s not a concern; however, consistency is.
“[Wooldridge] has to understand that he doesn’t have to kill it,” Powell explained. “He just has to be consistent with his hang time. We’ll If we can get a 40-yard punt with a four-second hang time, that’s great. We ask our punters to give us one second for every ten yards the ball travels. So if he kicks one 60 yards – like he does sometimes – it can’t have a four- or five-second hang time.”
But as firm as the Tar Heels appear to be set at kicker and punter, who becomes the returners is still undecided with as many as eight different players currently vying for the jobs.
“Right now,” Bunting said. “It’s clearly Wallace Wright, who did a great job (returning kicks) last year. Del Roberts and Trimane Goddard are in there as well. And, we might get some other people doing that…the Cooter Arnolds, possibly the Richie Richs and Jermaine Strongs.
“On punt returns, along with those guys, we know Jaws [Jarwarski Pollock] can do it and we know Del can do it. Quinton Person did a great job fielding punts. Those guys are the primary candidates, but we’ve got to find one other guy – Cooter Arnold, or somebody like that.”
And what about Mike Mason?
“I don’t see him on punt returns,” Bunting said. “There’s a possibility (on kick returns). He’s done it and he’s doing it. He’s fielding kickoffs. Right now I want to see what the other guys can do. Mike Mason is doing so many other things for us.”