Fourth and Long

Published 1:01 pm Wednesday, August 17, 2011

I am a true believer in the old philosophy that football consists of three basic phases; offense, defense and special teams and that success in all three are essential to consistent success on the field. While a good team doesn’t have to be great in all three phases no team can consistently overcome inept play in either phase.

While most would agree with me regarding offense and defense I am not sure most fans and many general managers and coaches truly appreciate just how much dominant special teams play can and does impact the win/loss column.

UNC football is certainly no exception. Ask any Carolina football fan about last year’s opening game against LSU in the Georgia Dome and they will tell you all about how crucial quality special team’s play is. If Tiger All-American Patrick Peterson doesn’t rack up 257 kick and punt return yards including one return for a touchdown and two others that setup touchdowns  and LSU doesn’t win the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game.

The Tar Heels come into this season with a few questions on special teams, mainly at punter.

The Heels return sophomore C.J. Feagles and welcome freshman combo kicker/punter Miller Snyder out of Charlotte. Feagles certainly has the pedigree as the son of an NFL great, however he was inconsistent last year and never could earn and keep the starting job.

If Feagles has used the offseason to work on his consistency and power then most would consider the starting job his to lose. If he has not, however, I would not be surprised if Snyder doesn’t see the field once or twice early.

Poise is imperative for punters on the big stage, but can only be truly tested in game action. You either have it or you don’t.

At 6 foot 2 inches Snyder certainly passes the look test, but only time will tell if he has what it takes to be a Division I punter. While his ability to both punt and kick was certainly a selling point it was not his punting ability that earned him a scholarship to Chapel Hill.

What did warrant the Queen City native a full ride to Carolina was his kickoff power. Snyder’s ability to send kicks into the end zone is invaluable. Forcing your opponent to have to drive 80 yards for a touchdown reduces their odds of getting one tremendously.

Doing it consistently is the difference between needing your offense to score 17 points to win and requiring them to put up 28 points in an effort to catch up with your opponent. Drives that start behind their own 20 yard line more often than not never reach the end zone. That’s a fact.

See what I mean about special teams having a direct impact on the scoreboard?

Currently handling the kickoff duties is senior Casey Barth. This will be the eighth year that a Barth has been entrenched at kicker in Chapel Hill (Casey’s brother Connor is playing for Tampa Bay in the NFL) and while that may or may not change in regards to kickoff duties, I seriously doubt there will be any significant changes to the extra point and field goal units.

Barth has proven himself to be clutch with game winning kicks against top notch competition. Virginia Tech, Miami and Tennessee have all fallen victim to the scrawny kid from Wilmington.  Barth’s high school teammate Mark House returns for his senior season to handle long snapper duties and Trase Jones, yet another senior and Roanoke Rapids native will continue to hold for him.

If everyone else can hold their block for a second or two then the experience of those three seniors should provide consistent scoring opportunities in the kicking game.

The kick and punt return portion of special teams play is still an unknown commodity this season. Gone are last year’s veterans and Carolina must find and develop new talent to field and return kicks.

The Heels badly need a touchdown threat in the return game much like they had in all time NCAA return yards leader Brandon Tate. Much like forcing opponents to drive 80 plus yards to score equals an improved defense, even occasionally starting drives at your own 35 and closer makes an offense look awfully good.

The good news is that Carolina has plenty of athletic talent on the roster and the addition of Joe Robinson to the staff should aide in the development of its special teams program. What was Robinson’s job last year? He was special teams’ coordinator for LSU.

Coincidence? I think not.

David Friedman is a long-time contributor to Roanoke-Chowan Publishing. A Bertie High School graduate, he and his wife currently reside in Wilmington. David can be reached via e-mail at