Playing For Kicks

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – After four years of luxury at the right foot of Connor Barth, North Carolina turned to a pair of freshman kickers during Saturday night's season-opening victory over McNeese State – Jay Wooten and Casey Barth.

Oddly enough, the placekicker position battle during training camp was the one of most intrigue and suspense, which speaks to the relatively uneventful nature of the Tar Heels' preseason. Bryon Bishop and Alan Pelc fought tooth and nail for the starting left guard spot, but they had both seen live action before – Wooten and Barth, Connor's little brother, had not.

Until Saturday night, that is. Wooten, a red-shirt freshman from Laurinburg, N.C., handled the kickoff duties against the Cowboys, averaging 65.3 yards per kick on six attempts. Barth, a true freshman from Wilmington, N.C., took care of everything else, connecting on all five extra point tries while missing a 37-yard field goal attempt wide left in the fourth quarter.

"It went well," Barth said about his first collegiate experience. "It could have gone better – I could have made the field goal. But for the most part, it was just getting used to everything, kicking in front of everybody."

But for a young man that graduated high school less than four months ago, it was a solid start to what should be a solid career at North Carolina.

"I think he did okay," head coach Butch Davis said during his postgame press conference. "I really wish that we wouldn't have had the delay of game penalty. There was a line call and we were trying to adjust the protection and they took too long, because it certainly put them five yards back. But he didn't look like he was stage struck. The snaps and the holds were all very good – they were all under 1.2 [seconds]. I think that he'll grow an awful lot from this performance [on Saturday] and that should help him handle some of the pressure that will be coming down the line."

So what exactly happened with the missed 37-yarder?

"I took a little too long with my setup, so we got the five-yard delay of game penalty," Barth said. "I set up right, and it was a good snap and a good hold, so it was perfect, but my plant foot came out a little bit [to the left] and I pointed my hips and followed through a little bit left. It was a good hit, but just a little left."

After standing on the sidelines during the 2007 season, Wooten was equally as excited as his teammate in taking the Kenan Stadium field on Saturday.

"It went great – it felt good," Wooten said. "It's been a long time coming. I've basically taken a whole year off with red-shirting last year, so it's good to get back into the mix of things and get back into the game, so it was a lot of fun."

Davis listed Wooten as one of the few positives in his postgame comments on Saturday.

"I think he did a good job [on Saturday]," Davis said. "I wouldn't say that it was a great job, but it was a very good job. He placed his kickoffs very well, most notably the last kick of the game when we asked him to keep it out of the two deep guys hands. He executed a terrific kick and put it into the fullback's hands at about the 20-yard line, and we needed that type of kick."

While their teammates spend the offseason working through 7-on-7 and other team-oriented drills, Barth and Wooten developed their craft with deep snappers Lowell Dyer, Trevor Stuart and Mark House and holders Trase Jones and Terrence Brown, getting together 3-4 times per week for approximately 20 kicks each session.

But the kickers also use the summer to work on their meticulous mechanics with independent instructors. Barth has attended camps at Chris Sailor Kicking, Special Team Solutions and 4th Down Sports, the latter of which is run by UNC quarterback commitment Bryn Renner's father, Bill.

Wooten prefers to stick with his long-time instructor, Gene Muriaty of the National Kicking Service.

"[The camps] tell you that kicking is 90 percent mental," Barth said. "A lot of people can kick a ball pretty far, but it's different in a game with the snap and hold. You've got to trust everybody."

Both kickers have also leaned on Connor for guidance. For Casey, the connection is obvious, as he's talked with his brother through his years of success in a Tar Heel uniform. For Wooten, traveling with UNC last season allowed him to watch and learn from the older Barth's work ethic and habits, on and off the field.

Rumors arose during training camp that the coaching staff was having difficulty deciding on a placekicker because while Wooten offered more distance, Barth was more consistent in the accuracy department.

But is there any legitimacy in that idle speculation?

"I think right now he has a stronger leg than I do," said Barth, who worked on his explosion during the summer to increase his distance. "If they put either one of us out there, I think we'll usually make the field goal. But I think right now the longer ones are up to Jay and hopefully they'll keep me for the shorter ones."

His teammate is not so sure those classifications are correct.

"Some people might think that, but I don't know," Wooten said. "We've both got our strengths."

Regardless, it appears that the dual-kicker solution will remain in North Carolina's immediate plans, as Davis has not let on that he is prepared to make any changes. And the players are in the dark as much as the rest of us.

"I really don't know," Wooten replied when asked if the kicking approach will change in the coming weeks. "I couldn't tell you. I think we're both doing what we're supposed to do, and hopefully that keeps up, because we want to win. That's the first thing. We're all teammates, we're all on the same team and we're all working toward the same goal."

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