The Tar Heels are steaming towards their August 27th opener in Kenan Stadium against Florida A&M and we at the Heel Tough Blog are getting you ready the way we always do with our in-depth positions previews. Today, we close down our look at the team with the unit that showed progression last year, but that the staff wants to see take a major leap this season under new leadership, the special team unit.
Gone is Jovan DeWitt, who led the unit in each of the last two years, leaving it solely in the hands of Larry Porter who had an extremely successful stint in the role at Auburn prior to his return to Chapel Hill. He will be faced with a unit that needs to replace its starting placekicker from a year ago and has other significant battles that are still being worked through heading into game week.
At placekicker, it looked like senior Jonathan Kim was going to slide right in and take over the duties back in the spring, but some inconsistencies have opened the door making this a competition. Kim has proven himself as the team’s kickoff specialist and will hold on to those duties regardless of the outcome of the battle, but he needs to round out practice with a strong week if he wants to be the starting kicker on Saturday.
The man he is battling for the job is sophomore Noah Burnette. He hasn’t attempted a kick so far in the first two years in Chapel Hill, but has some strong numbers in college and has at least done enough to make this a competition. It doesn’t matter who wins the battle, the team simply has to find more consistency with them having missed 40 field goals, which is tied for the most in FBS since 2016.
Senior Ben Kiernan is back once again after another solid season, but he is being challenged by the other punter on the roster for the starting job. He averaged 43.7 yards per punt for the second consecutive season in 2021, a number that ranked eighth in the ACC.
The challenger to Kiernan is redshirt freshman Cole Maynard, who is inexperienced but has a big leg. He punted just one time last year, a 46-yarder against Georgia State, and the hope is that he could bring that length consistently to this Tar Heel punting game.
The other battle within the unit is at kick returner where there are a multitude of names pushing for the role. Ja’Qurious Conley, who handled the role for the majority of the season last year, will not be available to begin the season and doesn’t seem like he will be an option even when he does return. Instead, the duties will fall on the shoulders of a group of younger players that will hope to give the team a pulse in the kick return game, something they haven’t really had since Anthony Ratliff-Williams departed campus. George Pettaway, Andre Greene Jr., Tychaun ‘Doc’ Chapman and Dontae Balfour are all possibilities to handle the duties this season and we will likely see a combo of these guys early on.
Only two spots in this unit seem to be locked up. Josh Downs will once again handle the punt returning duties after a solid job a year ago. The hope is that the punt return unit will do a better job of blocking for him to allow him to find space easier this season.
The deep snapper role will be handled in full by senior Drew Little again this season. He has been as consistent as any long snapper in the country since he took over the duties and was named to the Patrick Mannelly Award watch list this offseason.
There are two other long snappers that will be a part of the unit this season. Sophomore Spencer Triplett is back with the team for a third season, while freshman Garrett Jordan a newcomer to the group. There will also be an extra placekicker on the roster in second year freshman Todd Pledger.