Special Teams Rounding its Edges

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Butch Davis has been vocal about his concern with North Carolina's special teams corps over the past several weeks, but the second-year head coach indicated on Wednesday morning that the unit has started to show signs of turning the corner.

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Butch Davis

The special teams issues were obvious across the board last fall. Whether it was former holder Ryan Baucom botching a field goal attempt that could have possibly defeated East Carolina in the final minute or Wake Forest's Kevin Marion returning two kickoffs for 190 yards and a touchdown, most everyone associated with the North Carolina program knew that drastic improvement would be required in that area for the Tar Heels to move into the upper echelon of the ACC.

But as rebuilding typically goes, it was going to get worse than before it got better. Case in point – kicker Connor Barth, deep snapper Michael Murphy and Baucom all graduated following the 2007 season.

While senior Terrance Brown had a strong season punting the ball last fall, who would be responsible for making sure that he got the ball in the right spot this season? And with Barth's record-setting foot gone, who would replace him? Red-shirt freshman Jay Wooten, or Barth's little brother, true freshman Casey?

But while those starting positions are still currently yet to be decided, Davis indicated during Wednesday's media session that there have been positive developments with regard to the special teams units.

"We're making some strides in the kicking game," Davis said. "Maybe not quite as much as maybe we would have liked to have – not from the standpoint of the snappers and the holders and the kickers – but schematically."

In particular, two individuals have emerged from a large group of possibilities at snapper that once included Lowell Dyer and Ryan Taylor.

"One of the things that I'm very pleased with is Mark House and Trevor Stuart, our two deep snappers," Davis said. "You're always worried, because regardless of who the kicker is, if the snapper doesn't do his job, you could have the world's greatest kicker and it wouldn't make a difference. And [the kicker's] level of confidence has got to be that he trusts those guys that they're going to get the ball placed really well."

During last Saturday's scrimmage, Wooten and Barth combined for a perfect 8-for-8 performance on field goals, but that wasn't even the highlight for the group that morning.

"The best part of it was that every single one of the snaps, kicks and operations was under 1.25 seconds," Davis said. "That's clearly more than acceptable. You could live with 1.3 [seconds], but you would like to be under 1.3. So Jay Wooten did a nice job, as did Casey Barth. They were very accurate and they made every single one of their attempts, so we want to keep pushing those guys."

Davis suggested that while he may be more comfortable with the big-ticket items on special teams – punting the ball, kickoff coverage, etc. – the small nuances of the kicking game still concern him, things such as onside kicks and sure-hand situations. North Carolina will spend a third of its practice time over the next three days devoted solely to special teams, because while the various units are more experienced than last season, there is still plenty of youth on the depth chart.

"[We] want to not only be able to have a good frontline of 11 guys, but we've really got to develop some of the backup players," Davis said. "And most notably, that's where a lot of the freshmen are, especially some of the young linebackers like Zach Brown and Dion Guy. Those guys can make a big addition to the football team, but until they understand the schemes – punt protection, kickoff coverage, lane responsibilities – then they're not ready for primetime yet."

After a break for team bowling on Wednesday morning, the Tar Heels will return to the practice field Wednesday night for practice No. 15.

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