CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Nick Weiler’s transformation from a liability at placekicker to a verified weapon has been evident through North Carolina’s first three games of 2015. If you are looking for confirmation of his increased confidence level, look no further than his booming kicks and thudding hits on kickoffs.
In Saturday’s win over Illinois, five of Weiler’s nine kickoffs resulted in touchbacks. The junior played an active role in limiting the damage on the four returnable kicks, notching two tackles to lead the kickoff coverage team.
“He does work on tackling,” UNC head coach Larry Fedora said on Tuesday. “We really don’t want the kicker to have to make the tackle, but he gets a little bit too aggressive in some of those situations.”
Weiler, who is oftentimes the first player to lose his jersey and shoulder pads following practice at Navy Fields, has apparently embraced the physicality approach the coaching staff emphasized this offseason.
“I’m excited for this guy because he’s been doing a great job for us,” quarterback Marquise Williams said on Monday. “He even got a couple of tackles in, for a guy that thinks he’s the best athlete on the team. We were just excited to see him get a tackle because the guy keeps going around telling everybody he played linebacker back in high school.”
The quips did not stop there.
“We compare him to Coach Fedora,” Williams said. “We tell him he’s Coach Fedora’s son.”
Laughs and jokes are easy to come by when success has become the norm. There were no teammates picking on Weiler last season – at least publicly - when the Fairfax Station, Va. struggled in his placekicking duties. He converted 5-of-8 field goals in 2014 with a long of 23 yards.
Fans and media were surprised when Fedora trotted out Weiler and the field goal team to attempt a 47-yarder against South Carolina, and even more so when he converted the opportunity with a kick that would have been good from 50. Weiler topped that field goal with a career-long 48-yarder against N.C. A&T, and then did it again against Illinois.
Weiler is 5-for-5 on the season and his shortest conversion is from 32 yards out, nine yards longer than his best kick in 2014. His pair of 48-yard field goals match the longest at UNC since Casey Barth’s 49-yarder against N.C. State in 2010.
The last time a Tar Heel connected on three field goals of 47+ yards in a season was in 2006 when Connor Barth converted from 47, 52 and 54 yards out.
Weiler said confidence has been the biggest factor for his turnaround, although a minor technique adjustment also played a role.
“I shortened my steps a little bit, but most of last year was more mental,” Weiler said. “It was just confidence and not trusting my swing, trusting myself, and hesitating mid-swing.”
Part of the issue was handling the transition from booming kickoffs to finessing field goals.
“Kicking field goals is different than kicking kickoffs,” Weiler said. “I love kicking kickoffs; you just go out there and you go hit the ball. So when I was making that transition midseason last season to field goals, I was having trouble changing mindsets from field goals to kickoffs and kickoffs to field goals.”
The process clicked during spring ball, according to Weiler, and once the players returned to campus in late May, the kicks became automatic with the help of holder Joey Mangili and deep snapper Kyle Murphy.
Weiler’s newfound confidence has added a dimension to UNC’s offensive approach.
“It affects the way you call plays,” Fedora said. “There’s no doubt. You cross the 50 (and) you start thinking about points. And as far as when you get in that fringe area of the red zone, you know you’re getting points there.”
The anxiety of seasons past has dissipated, as evidenced by the good feelings and humor that have saturated a position that has recently been a topic most often avoided. It’s not uncommon for Weiler to take the field and purposefully set up several inches from where Mangili intends to put the ball, an inside joke of sorts intent on providing levity in an otherwise stressful situation.
Then it’s just a matter of Weiler visualizing the ball going through the uprights, which has matched the results so far this season.