Heel Tough Blog: 2020 Tar Heel Position Previews- Special Teams

We close out our 2020 Tar Heel in-depth position previews with another group that will be looking to take a major step forward this season after a rough first year under the Mack Brown administration. Jovan DeWitt takes over the unit and will hope for more consistency all-around in 2020, especially in the kicking game.


Andy Mead- ISI Photos

Junior Noah Ruggles is looking to hold on to the starting kicking job despite an up-and-down sophomore campaign that saw him get benched at one point before he would quickly regain the starting job. Inside of 40, Ruggles had a strong year connecting on 16 of his 18 attempts, but from 40 and beyond it was a rough year, as he was just 3-9 and had three attempts from long range blocked. The Tar Heels need more reliability from long range and as the returner, Ruggles will have a shot to hold on to the job full time, but there is more pressure this year with a new leg competing to start.


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Senior Grayson Atkins transfers in from Furman for his final season of eligibility following a great start to his career at the FCS level where he earned All-American honors. In his career with the Paladins, Atkins set a school record for field goal percentage, connecting on 80.4% of his career field goal attempts. Last year alone, he was 13-15, including 7-8 from 40 or beyond. Expect Atkins to make a strong push to take over the starting kicking job this season.


Andy Mead- ISI Photos

The starting punter job will not be up for grabs. Sophomore Ben Kiernan averaged 41.3 yards per punt on his 60 punts as a true freshman a year ago, a very solid start to his career. If he can continue to build upon what he showed a year ago, the Tar Heels will have a nice weapon that can help give the defense a long field to defend.


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The return game really had their struggles a year ago and that has been one of the main areas that Mack Brown has focused on this offseason. Michael Carter had a relatively quiet 2019 as the primary kick returner, averaging just 24.5 yards per return and while it looks like he will be the primary option, he will need to be more explosive this season.


Jim Hawkins- Inside Carolina

Secondary kick returner is up for grabs with Antonio Williams and there really isn’t a clear favorite right now. Redshirt freshman Khafre Brown had a successful kick returning career at the high school level and has the straight line speed to thrive, so he’s probably the favorite right now, but there are plenty of guys who handled kick returner duties in their high school careers that may end up being a factor here.


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Punt returner will also be looking for a spark after struggling a year ago. Dazz Newsome will likely handle the bulk of the load here as he did a year ago, but needs to have the type of success that he did his sophomore season as opposed to last year. At the least, he must improve upon his 6.8 yards per return from a year ago.


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Last year, Rontavius Groves handled the bulk of the inside the 20 returns and one would expect him to do the same this season. Last year, he handled that role well, not fumbling a punt return all season, so expect the staff to use him in that role once again this season.


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True freshman Josh Downs could get a look at both return spots this season as well according to head coach Mack Brown. While Downs really only saw return opportunities in his freshman and junior year, that move was likely made to keep him healthy and available for offensive reps and the staff really likes his straight line speed.


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Sophomore walk-on Jonathan Kim returns after handling the kickoff duties a year ago. While Atkins will likely push him for the job here, there is no reason to believe Kim isn’t up to the task after a strong season a year ago in the role.


Both of the team’s long snappers, senior Trevor Collins, who handled field goals and extra points, and sophomore Drew Little, who handled punts, and the holder, junior walk-on Cooper Graham, are all set to return this season after good performances a year ago.


Streeter Lecka- Getty Images

The Tar Heel coverage units were called out in the middle of last season by head coach Mack Brown and responded well, so now it’s about putting things together for a full season. With not much gone from a year ago and plenty of extra depth coming in, there is reason to believe this group can take a step forward this season.


Two other walk-on’s beside Graham and Kim are expected to be a part the team in 2020. True freshman Noah Burnette will help provide depth at place kicker, while fellow true freshman Adam Buck will be a depth piece at punter.


Projected Depth Chart

K

#17 Grayson Atkins, Sr.

#97 Noah Ruggles, Jr.

#98 Noah Burnette, Fr.

#96 Cooper Graham, Jr.

P

#91 Ben Kiernan, So.

#95 Jonathan Kim, So.

#94 Adam Buck, Fr.

KOS

#95 Jonathan Kim, So.

#17 Grayson Atkins, Sr.

#96 Cooper Graham, Jr.

H

#96 Cooper Graham, Jr.

#91 Ben Kiernan, So.

LS

#60 Trevor Collins, Sr. (K)

#61 Drew Little, So. (P)

KR

# 8 Michael Carter, Sr.

#11 Josh Downs, Fr.

# 1 Khafre Brown, RFr.

PR

# 5 Dazz Newsome, Sr.

# 4 Rontavious Groves, Sr.

#11 Josh Downs, Fr.