When Butch Davis first arrived in Chapel Hill, depth issues were a concern, but there were enough bodies within the offensive and defensive units to hide the problem. Unfortunately, the small number of players at the linebacker and safety positions precluded a healthy depth chart on special teams, as starters such as Bruce Carter and Quan Sturdivant were forced to perform double duties.
If you need an example of how tired legs, youth and inexperience can affect you on special teams, look no further than Wake Forest's Kevin Marion returning two kickoffs for 190 yards and a touchdown in the Demon Deacons blowout 37-10 victory over UNC in 2007.
Two recruiting classes later, the various special teams units have seen a serious injection of talented bodies. But while the numbers have improved, the production is still not up to Davis' liking.
"There are clearly some areas that we've got to clean up in special teams just because we're trying to play some younger guys," Davis told reporters on Monday afternoon.
It doesn't help that the Tar Heels have suffered two critical losses to special teams standouts this preseason. Senior tight end Ryan Taylor sprained the medial collateral ligament (MCL) during the first week of practice and is expected back in two weeks and junior safety Matt Merletti was lost for the season after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in his right knee last week.
"It's a big loss – Matt Merletti was the special teams king," junior cornerback Kendric Burney said. "He and Ryan Taylor, they were the captains. They pretty much ran special teams in every aspect. But things like that happen in football – adversity strikes every college football team in America. The thing is that we've just got to find somebody to step up and replace them. They might not actually be as good, but they've got to work hard and try to be just as good as those guys are."
Davis expanded on Merletti's loss on Monday, saying, "You hate it, because he's basically a starter on all four of the big four special teams. Two years ago, it would have been catastrophic… But we're in a better position to try to deal with that kind of adversity today than we were two years ago."
While it may impossible to replicate Brandon Tate's immense success as UNC's punt and kickoff returner over the past four years, the Tar Heel coaching staff has placed an emphasis this August on finding worthy replacements.
It appears as though junior wide receivers Greg Little and Johnny White will reprise their roles as the kickoff returners following Tate's injury last season against Notre Dame. Little led the team with a 28.2 yards-per-return average in five opportunities in '08, while White totaled 379 yards on 15 returns – good for a 25.3 yards-per-return mark.
Burney went out on a limb this weekend to proclaim that White would return two or three kickoff returns for touchdowns in '09.
"He's an explosive guy," Burney said. "He runs a 4.3 40. He just needs one hole and he's going to make the rest miss."
Burney and junior safety Da'Norris Searcy have emerged as the top-two options at punt returner, with the intent to interchange the players to cut down on potential fatigue. Burney returned six punts for 37 yards last season, while Searcy's next punt return will be his first at the college level.
Position battles have been a rarity this training camp, but one spot where a battle wages is at punter.
"We've got some pretty good competition going on between Grant Schallock and C.J. Feagles," Davis said. "Both of them have shown really strong legs. They've shown the ability to really hang the ball well, but we're really looking for consistency. I don't want a 55-yard kick one time and a 29-yard kick the next time. It's all about being consistent."
Schallock earned a scholarship in July after serving as UNC's first-string punter during spring ball. If you're wondering who he is, just know that it will not be hard to spot the junior on the sideline – the right-footed kicker stands 6-foot-7 and checks in at 225 pounds. That height has its advantages and disadvantages, the latter being the ability to get the ball away quickly
"All throughout the spring, Coach [Allen] Mogridge was in my ear, saying, ‘Two steps, Grant – be a two-step punter. Catch it and get it out. Don't read the laces,'" Schallock said. "That's something that I really tried to improve upon this summer."
The goal for the punt kick team is to have the entire execution time under two seconds, meaning that Schallock is working to have his catch-and-kick locked in around the 1.2-second mark.
Feagles is a 6-foot, 185-pound freshman that arrives with solid genealogy – his father is 21-year NFL veteran punter Jeff Feagles.
With Jay Wooten's unexpected departure this offseason, sophomore Casey Barth has become the odds-on favorite to inherit his former teammate's kickoff duties, while continuing his placekicker responsibilities.
The Wilmington, N.C. native spent his offseason building his lower body muscle, and the results have paid off in the form of additional yardage on his kickoffs. Barth indicated that his key to placing the ball inside the five-yard-line is pure aggression.
"You can't really be too lackadaisical with your leg swing," Barth said. "You've really got to try to kill it. It's just a matter of always being pumped up and ready to hit the ball as hard as you can."
The 5-foot-11, 180-pound Barth connected on 10-of-15 field goal attempts and made all 33 point-after-touchdown opportunities in '08. The longest field goal that he's attempted this preseason has been a 47-yarder, but his comfort range extends back to 50 yards.
One interesting fact this August is that Barth has not had any of his kicks blocked through 19 practices. He attributes that success to a consistent 1.2 execution time – not one kick over 1.3 seconds this training camp – and the help of holder Trase Jones.
The Importance of Special Teams
Finally, if you need an example of just how valuable special teams are to a program, consider these words on former UNC gunner Brooks Foster, who was signed by the St. Louis Rams in the NFL Draft's fifth round because of his duality in special teams and as a wide receiver.
"[Foster] will have an extra long career in the league just because he can play every part of the special teams," Burney said. "A lot of people don't realize how much special teams really means to a team, but it's a win-or-loss situation for you. If you get a blocked punt or you get a returned punt or kickoff taken to the house, you've pretty much lost the game because that's a series that your defense didn't get out there and that's seven points without anything happening."