Hibbard Strikes on Special Teams

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. – On a stat sheet full of numbers and charts, Tommy Hibbard's contributions on Saturday take up one line halfway down the page. On the field, however, his efforts resulted in a handful of game-changing plays.

Following Gio Bernard's second-quarter 17-yard touchdown that increased North Carolina's lead to 13-7, the Tar Heels' PAT unit lined up in a version of the swinging gate formation. The long snapper, holder and kicker assumed their traditional positions, while the six linemen lined up outside of the right hash and tight ends Eric Ebron and Jack Tabb lined up outside of the left hash.

UNC used the formation after its first touchdown, but elected to kick the extra point. After the second score, though, snapper Conor Fry hiked the ball to Hibbard, so immediately threw a strike to Ebron on the left side. Tabb only had one defender to block, resulting in a successful two-point conversion.

Hibbard broke down the play following the game. After UNC's opening score, Miami matched Ebron and Tabb on the left side with two defenders. But the Hurricanes only put one defender on the duo the second time around, providing the key for Hibbard to make the throw.

"We have a variety of formations down there in that area of the field and we've been doing it all year," UNC head coach Larry Fedora told reporters following the game. "We gave a different formation this week and they covered it the first time they were out there. The second time somebody didn't realize what was going on and Tommy Hibbard made a nice play.

"If you think about it, that's the difference. They could've been kicking a field goal other times and they had to score and so that's a huge play for us."

Hibbard, who played quarterback in high school, told reporters that UNC practices the play 2-3 times a week, typically on Thursdays. On North Carolina's final possession of the first half, Miami called a timeout with eight seconds left as the Tar Heels faced a 4th-and-17 from their own 40. The snap to Hibbard was low, but the sophomore fielded it cleaned and boomed a 54-yarder that rolled dead at Miami's six-yard-line.

His final punt of the game was quite possibly the biggest special teams play of the day. UNC was facing a 4th-and-13 at Miami's 48-yard-line with 1:53 remaining. The snap this time short-hopped Hibbard, forcing him to bend down and make a play.

"The snap was low so I caught it and decided to get it off as quick as I could, because I knew they were coming for the block," Hibbard said. "That would have been a really big play for them and put them in good field position, so I tried to get it off and it worked out for us."

The 31-yard kick was downed inside Miami's 20 at the 17.

Fedora referred to that kick as "the most critical punt of the game."

"The ball rolled back there and bounced around for awhile and Tommy did a nice job of handling it," Fedora said. "That's one of the thing they do in practice. He handles bad snaps. That's part of how he prepares himself each week. I can't say enough about him, because he punted the ball really well in every situation and, again, that may have been the difference."

Hibbard, who also played shortstop in high school, indicated that before every practice, his coach throws tennis balls at the punters to help their hand-eye coordination. They have to catch the balls with their finger tips, not their palms.

He finished with four punts for 173 yards, good for a 43.2 yards-per-kick average. Three of those punts ended up inside the 20-yard-line.

Hibbard's strong play adds more fuel to Fedora's emphasis on special teams plays.

"We tell our guys, you play this play, whatever it is," Fedora said. "I don't care if it's a quarterback sneak, a punt, a kickoff return or whatever it is. It doesn't matter. You play like it's the most important play of the game and it could be the play of the game. On both of those situations, with the two-point [conversion] and there on that last punt, Tommy did make the play of the game."

Not bad for a sophomore walk-on out of Charlotte, N.C.

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