Special Teams Significance

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Virginia Tech gained notoriety in the 1990s for its ‘Beamerball' approach, a stated emphasis on special teams that has resulted in 36 different players scoring touchdowns. Larry Fedora is hoping to employ a similar method at North Carolina.

Frank Beamer's success in the special teams phase is nothing short of phenomenal. In his first game at Virginia Tech in 1987, true freshman Jon Jeffries returned a kickoff 92 yards for a touchdown against Clemson. Since that time, the Hokies have scored 49 touchdowns on special teams and blocked 129 kicks, 17 of which have been returned for scores.

On Monday, Fedora acknowledged that early in his career, Beamer was the man that coaches went to when then wanted to learn about special teams. The first-year UNC head coach has garnered plenty of attention for his attacking-style on offense, but his special teams work may even exceed the aggression found in the other two phases of the game.

Southern Miss returned three blocked punts for touchdowns in 2012 and executed a pair of fake punts out of its own end zone. The Golden Eagles scored six touchdowns on special teams during Fedora's four years in Hattiesburg and blocked eight punts in his final two years.

"I don't think I would put myself up there by Frank Beamer in any phase of the game, but I do believe in being aggressive," Fedora said. "Probably through the years of watching him and some of the things that he's done have taken some things and have added to my philosophy, yes."

Like Beamer, Fedora also had a special teams touchdown scored in his first game at his current school. All-ACC sophomore running back Gio Bernard sprinted down the right sideline for a 70-yard punt return for touchdown in the win over Elon.

Listen to Fedora and he will tell you about Bernard sneaking into the rep line with the third-teamers during training camp, which might lead you to believe that No. 26 asked his head coach for the opportunity to return punts.

When asked on Monday if he approached Fedora about the job, Bernard laughed and said: "No, he just asked me."

Granted, that makes sense considering that Fedora coaches the punt return unit – all of UNC's coaching staff handles one element of special teams, except for offensive coordinator Blake Anderson – but that move to insert the Tar Heels' star player into such a role proved to the team how much significance their head coach placed on the third and often overlooked phase of the game.

"That's one thing I've noticed about him compared to other head coaches is that he stresses special teams," Bernard said. "Those plays are really opportunities. Whatever we can do to get that advantage on our side [gives] us a better opportunity to win the game."

Quarterback Bryn Renner told reporters that there was a dramatic change in how the previous coaching staff approached special teams compared to the current staff.

"It's Coach Fedora's specialty," Renner said. "He really wants it to be the forefront of this team. In the past, it hasn't always been like that – it's been sort of an emphasis, but not really. But Coach Fedora has done a great job just saying, ‘Hey, we need to make special teams a big part of this game.'"

In order to start on offense or defense for North Carolina, you have to start on a special teams unit, quarterbacks notwithstanding. Fedora lets his special teamers eat first at dinner and they ride the first bus instead of bringing up the rear.

As Renner put it, "It's a pride thing to be on special teams."

Fedora keeps things close to the vest, but he couldn't help but let his aggressive spirit emerge during his postgame press conference following UNC's 66-0 rout over Idaho on Saturday. The Tar Heels blocked two punts, but Fedora wanted more.

"I'm a little disappointed – we should've blocked three of them tonight," said Fedora, whose team has blocked three punts in 2012. "If they don't jump offsides on that one, Romar [Morris] is going to block another one so that was a little bit disappointing, but I've never done that. I wanted to get that done."

With Fedora and Beamer walking the sidelines at Kenan Stadium on Saturday, special teams may be the determining factor in this critical Coastal Division contest.

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