Returns On A Roll

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – From the 'looking-for-positives' file, the North Carolina return teams have been a bright spot so far this season. The 0-2 Tar Heels hold significant advantages over their victorious opponents in all stats regarding punt and kickoff returns.

However, the beauty of the following numbers is in the eye of the beholder. Mike Mason and Wallace Wright have logged as many kickoff return yards as the offense has been able to gain via the run – 118 yards.

"It's a total kickoff return team thing," Mason said. "The guys up front are doing a great job blocking. We work on technique a lot in practice and it's helping them. The guys in the back are doing a great job of getting a wedge started. We're just trying to come out of the game knowing we gave our offense good field position.

"It's been going good right now, but we're trying to get better and be atop the ACC."

True freshman Brandon Tate has 78 yards on nine punt returns with a long of 26 yards, good for an 8.7 per return average. Pretty good, especially considering he slipped and fell in his first career attempt at Georgia Tech.

The Tar Heels' depth chart had a number of punt return candidates separated by the obligatory "OR" prior to the season opener in Atlanta. But now Mason and Tate appear to have settled into the starting roles.

Tate returned the first Yellow Jackets punt and was impressive in his debut with four returns for 47 yards. He took five back against Wisconsin for 31 yards.

"When I first came in I was just trying to play a little receiver," Tate said. "They told me that they like freshmen to try different things. So I just went out there and I've done all right.

"I just attribute my success to hard work in practice and knowing the schemes and knowing what to do."

Mason took two kickoff returns for 52 yards, including a 32-yarder, but he sprained his shoulder in the game against the Badgers.

For his career, Mason has returned 45 kickoffs for 1,159 yards (23.7 avg.) and one touchdown – a 96-yarder versus Maryland in 2003.

Mason is the most utilized player on the Tar Heel football team and it's not even close.

"I do kickoff returns, then I go in and do offense and then I'm the gunner on punt teams," Mason said. "And if it's a three-and-out I might do punt returns. I'm on the field almost all the time.

"I'm not really gassed, but I don't always have complete energy all the time. I'm just trying to help my team out. I'm willing to do anything my coaches want me to do."

While the offense tries to solve its problems advancing the ball on first and second downs, particularly on the ground, UNC can ill-afford to give back the advantage it has gained on special teams, both on coverage and returns.

The Tar Heels have allowed opponents just 110 total return yards in their first two games.

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