As fans know, special teams units consist of a team’s unsung heroes who quietly do their job with no glitz, glory or glamour. However, as Pitt fans know from playing the North Carolina Tar Heels in recent years, one special teams play has the ability to alter the course of an entire football game in a matter of seconds and can also put enormous amounts of pressure on individual players.
As Pitt (2-1, 0-0 ACC) enters ACC play with its crucial first conference game against North Carolina (2-1,0-0 ACC), one team aspect that has not been examined in detail is the Panthers’ special teams, and it is time for Pitt’s unsung heroes to bask in the limelight.
In terms of kick and punt returning, Pitt has one of the best return units in the entire country through week three. Quadree Henderson has been nothing short of remarkable so far this season, leading the entire Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) in kickoff returning (40.8 yards per kickoff return) and has returned one to the house for six points. He is also ranked 20th in punt return average (13 yards per return). Overall, he is fifth in combined kick return yards (310). That total is also second best in the ACC behind Sean Riley of Syracuse, who has 314 yards.
Henderson also averages the third-most all-purpose yards in the FBS and first in the ACC with an average of 192 per game. He's is a rare player because he literally can change the entire dynamic of a football game within a matter of seconds, whether it be a kickoff return, reception, punt return or run out of the backfield.
Under the direction of special teams coordinator Andre Powell, Pitt’s special teams units have done more than just return the football. Pitt is one of only 11 FBS schools to block a field goal and one of only four to block a punt so far this season. Causing havoc in this manner could give Pitt a tremendous boost that compensates for the weak corps it possesses, such as its secondary and receiving.
Pitt’s return coverage this season has also been stout, denying returners of kickoffs and punts lanes to the end zone. Oddly, it is an upperclassmen-led regime headlined by players such as Bam Bradley, George Aston and Scott Orndoff.
In terms of punting the football, Ryan Winslow has been solid so far this season. He currently averages 42.5 yards per punt (48th nationally). He has consistently been able to pin opposing teams within their own territory, booming four punts that were downed within the 20 yard-line at Oklahoma State, and he has made no noticeable mistakes so far; none of his kicks have been blocked, and none have blatantly sailed off the side of his foot and out of bounds.
However, the story has not been as jocund for the field goal unit. Out of the 99 ranked kickers in the FBS this season, Chris Blewitt is ranked last in field goal percentage making just 1 of 4 attempts. Blewitt has had as rough of a start as a kicker can have so far. He missed a 39-yard kick and had a 47-yard kick blocked against Villanova, and a 50-yard attempt against Penn State sailed wide before he finally made a 48-yard try against Oklahoma State last week. Blewitt’s job security may come into question if he continues his poor run of form as freshman walk-on Alex Kessman has lit up eyes thus far in practices.
Despite Blewitt’s struggles, Pitt’s special teams units have given the Panthers boosts when they needed them the most, and, as a whole, the special teams will have to continue to limit mistakes as ACC play begins to lurk closer and closer.