Special Teams Progress

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Entering this season, Butch Davis knew that in order for his program to challenge for the ACC title, the special teams phase would have to improve its erratic play from 2007. But even with the loss of standout return man Brandon Tate, the kicking game is beginning to hold its own.

The 17th-ranked Tar Heels knew that field position would be critical on Saturday against Georgia Tech's rushing attack. That offense is designed to move the chains down the field, but longer distances to travel require an increased number of plays, which is difficult to maintain against a solid defense. For UNC, consider that a mission accomplished.

Out of the Yellow Jackets' 13 possessions, nine started inside their own 26-yard line and they never began a drive beyond their own 40-yard line. North Carolina, on the other hand, had three touchdown scoring drives of 39 yards or less.

Davis praised his punt coverage gunners during his Sunday night teleconference.

"Cooter Arnold and Brooks Foster were spectacular covering punts," Davis said. "That really helped, because you don't want to play on a short field against Georgia Tech."

North Carolina ranks 74th nationally in punt return yardage defense (9.89 yards per return), but those statistics have improved dramatically over the past five outings. During that stretch, UNC is allowing just 2.9 yards per return (38 yards on 13 returns) with a long of 10 yards. Add in three Bruce Carter blocked punts and Matt Merletti's fumble recovery of a muffed punt on Saturday, and the punt coverage unit's contribution comes to light.

The kickoff coverage has been solid all season long, ranking fourth nationally by giving up just 17.57 yards per return. Davis indicated that the improvement is due to the growth and maturation of a unit that was filled with freshmen in 2007.

"I think the biggest area where we've made some pretty good improvement on kickoff coverage was being able to read the other teams' blocking schemes," Davis said. "A lot of times when kids come into your program, especially the freshmen and red-shirt freshmen, they're just used to setting their hair on fire and running down the field and trying to chase the ball, and not realizing that the execution on kickoff returns is almost identical to an awful lot of offensive plays.

"A lot of times there's double teams and a lot of times there's trap schemes, zone schemes and a myriad of ways that the kickoff return team [can work]."

And it's difficult to discuss the kicking game without bringing up junior college transfer Terrence Brown. While the senior may rank 54th nationally in punting average (40.6 yards per punt), part of the explanation behind that statistic is that Davis has emphasized directional kicks, but the second-year head coach did away with that approach recently to let Brown shine.

The senior averaged 45.7 yards on six kicks Saturday, including three downed inside the 20-yard line.

"He was doing a great job in practice the last couple of weeks of just getting in a great rhythm and a great groove, hitting the ball and getting great hang time," Davis said. "A lot of his hang time was in the 4.5-4.6 range, and we told him just to go out there and smooth stroke it – just hit it. [We're] just trying to give him the green light to do that. He can really kick it, and that's what we saw [on Saturday]."

Brown's career stats are stunning – with 106 punts to his credit, the Fresno, Calif. product has downed 44 kicks inside the 20 with just nine touchbacks.

Combining solid special teams play with an efficient running game and an opportunistic defense has put North Carolina in position to win the Coastal Division title in the final weeks of the season.

News and Notes:

* Sophomore tight end/H-back Zack Pianalto fractured the fibula in his left leg during his catch and extension across the goal line for North Carolina's opening drive score on Saturday. It was his first game back after being sidelined for several weeks with a high right ankle sprain.

"It's going to take some time to mend, and we don't know exactly how long that will be right now," Davis said.

* Davis was once again asked about rumors circulating around him and the University of Tennessee's job opening, and he quickly shot down the question, saying, "I already addressed that last week, and [I want] no further discussion about that."

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