Two factors have plagued the Tar Heels's punting units all season long – (1) a loss in available bodies due to the NCAA investigation and injuries, as backups normally slotted for special teams have been forced to play more minutes on defense; and (2) question marks and competition at the punter position.
That first topic has been obvious. Johnny White has served as a stalwart as a special teams gunner, but when running backs Shaun Draughn and Ryan Houston were suspended for the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game, the third-string tailback moved into the starting role, thereby reducing his role on special teams.
Free safety Matt Merletti was a special teams captain in '08 and is a vital part in the current coverage units, but with six defensive backs sidelined against Rutgers, the red-shirt junior was forced to play all 70 snaps at safety. As a result, Merletti was held out of some special teams opportunities in attempt to give him a breather.
"[Special teams] is an area that's really taken a big hit over these first four games," North Carolina head coach Butch Davis told reporters during Monday's press conference.
North Carolina currently stands 111th nationally in punt return yardage defense, giving up 19.78 yards per kick.
Da'Norris Searcy finished the '09 season ranked fifth nationally in punt returns (14.6 yards per return), and his absence was sorely missed during the first three games of the season as North Carolina returned only one punt in 10 opportunities.
The senior safety wasted little time in his first game back against East Carolina in making it known that a fair catch is a last resort option. Searcy was gang-tackled at UNC's 40-yard-line for no gain less than three minutes into the first quarter.
"I didn't care if they were surrounding me – I had to get the rock back in my hands," Searcy told reporters following the victory. "[Wide receiver] Coach [Charlie] Williams, he was like, 'You should have fair-caught.' And I was like, 'I know Coach, I was just too anxious.' "
Searcy took his second kickoff return against East Carolina back 35 yards down the left sideline and then returned a fourth-quarter punt 20 yards. Both returns currently stand as team-highs on the season.
"[In the preseason] Da'Norris was our No. 1 returner both in punt and kickoff returns, and our No. 2 and No. 3 are still not playing," Davis said after the game. "… It was good to get Da'Norris back. He's confident, he's poised, he's been in games, he's returned kicks, and we hope that role will continue to grow, but it was very much a welcomed addition to our team."
While the Tar Heel return game is looking up, there are still lingering question marks at the punter position. Last season's starter, junior Grant Schallock, won the position battle over C.J. Feagles during spring practice, but the red-shirt freshman closed the gap during training camp.
Schallock booted all seven punts against LSU, but split reps with Feagles against Georgia Tech and Rutgers. Feagles then assumed full punting duties against East Carolina last Saturday.
"Ultimately, at some point in time, competition has to stop and performance has to kick in," Davis said. "You can say that there's competition, but when you actually play on Saturday, you've got to deliver. You've got to step up and you've got to deliver."
Davis indicated that Feagles snuck ahead of Schallock based on hang time numbers and his directional-kicking ability.
"Right now, C.J.'s got just a little bit of a nudge on him," Davis said.
North Carolina's punting prowess is still a work in progress, as evidenced by a 29.8 net punting average (113th nationally), but Feagles displayed his potential in the third quarter against the Pirates, booming a 49-yarder that hung in the air for nearly 4.4 seconds.
The win over East Carolina marked the first time all season North Carolina has won the average field position battle, and as more players make their way back onto the playing field, the Tar Heels will likely be able to win that statistical category on a more frequent basis.
With Clemson arriving in Chapel Hill this weekend, the punting realm needs to carry a greater importance this week during practice, as the Tigers rank second nationally in net punting (43.42) and 26th nationally in punt return yardage defense (4.44 ypr). Marcus Gilchrist also ranks ninth nationally in punt returns, averaging 17.11 yards per kick.