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Special Teams Preview: Notre Dame vs. North Carolina

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The Irish Face Another Return Test This Weekend: Ryan Switzer.

Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

OFD Films II

The Irish won a close game last week and had a very good special teams performance, not allowing a single punt return and limiting Ty Montgomery to a single long return.  However, the field goal unit struggled with snaps and holds.  The Irish, this week, are going up against a special teams unit that is arguably the best overall unit they have faced all season.

UNC Kickoff

North Carolina's primary kickoff man is Nick Weiler.  Weiler has 32 kicks for 2,067 yards, an average of 64.6 yards per kick.  Punter Tommy Hibbard has one kickoff for 64 yards.  Amazingly, Weiler has 20 touchbacks on the season with no kicks going out of bounds.  This an unbelievable ratio of kicks to touchbacks.

Just as amazing is UNC's kickoff coverage.  They have only allowed 14 returns for 233 yards, an average of 16.6 yards per return.  Many of these were very short returns.  The longest return came against East Carolina, a game that UNC lost 70-41.  This return went for 42 yards.

UNCKickoff

You can see from this GIF that UNC failed to fill one lane and make one tackle.  The lane fill would have would have likely resulted in a sub-25 yard line return.  Had they made the tackle, it would have ended up around the 30 yard line.  Instead, East Carolina got this ball almost to midfield.

Despite this return, UNC's coverage unit, overall, is exceptional. They have played several tough opponents this season and have performed very well.  Notre Dame is going to have to be disciplined and play smart to have even an iota of success against UNC's very good kickoff unit, assuming they get any opportunities at all.  It would not surprise me if, by the end of the game, ND has less than 3 kickoff returns.

UNC Field Goal

This is arguably the hardest unit on UNC's special teams to analyze.  Nick Weiler has taken a majority of the field goals this season and is a perfect 4 for 4.  Thomas Moore is 0-2.   Yes, that's correct, UNC has only kicked 6 field goals all season.  Moore's misses were from 44 and 41.  Weiler has made kicks from 20, 21, 22, and 23.  He is also a perfect 21-21 on extra points.  To put this in perspective, Brindza has attempted 12 field goals and 19 extra points.  Based on the yardage and the math, Weiler's longest field goal on the season came with the ball sitting on the 6 yard line.  Moore, who has not made a field goal all season, missed from 41 and 44 in UNC's first two games--he has not attempted a field goal since.

These stats tell me several things.  First, UNC either has not had the opportunity to attempt mid-range/long-range field goals or goes for it on 4th down a lot.  I think it is a mix of both, as UNC has attempted 9 4th down conversions on the season (ND has attempted 3).  Second, what these stats tell me are that Weiler is accurate from in close, which is not surprising.  Based on the kickoff stats above, we know that Weiler has the leg strength to get the ball long, it just has not been tested from the field goal spot so far this season.  It will be interesting to see in this game if UNC attempts any long field goals. Hopefully, with the success of the ND defense so far this season, they will not have any opportunities.

UNC Punt

Tommy Hibbard is UNC's primary punter.  He has 32 punts on the season for 1,311 yards, an average of 41 yards per punt, a long of 56, 1 touchback, 14 fair catches, and 13 inside the 20.  An unbelievable 6 of his 32 punts have gone for over 50 yards.  Hibbard is an absolutely fantastic punter.

Because Hibbard has such a leg, I figured he might outkick his coverage.  However, UNC has a very good coverage team that has done its best to limit long returns.  UNC has limited its opponents to only 7 punt returns for 29 yards, an average of 4.1 yards per return.  They were helped by a -10 yard return by Virginia Tech.  The longest return all season came at the hands of Liberty, a 12 yard return.

UNC had good coverage but poor tackling.  Given the score and opponent, it is possible these were backups.  Despite this 12 yarder, UNC has managed to maintain a very good average on limiting long punt returns.  I think that returning punts against UNC this weekend will be VERY difficult.  Hibbard has a very strong leg, only one touchback, and a very long average.  Riggs and the return unit are going to need to hold blocks and be smart.

Oh, and for the formation?

UNCPuntFormation

UNC is in white and they are obviously lined up in a standard Spread Punt formation.  In this case, they have no gunners split wide, but that is a variation that many teams play with.  Now, why do they use the Spread Punt formation? Simple. UNC is not Michigan.  Moving on.

UNC Kick Return

Going into this preview, I really thought that Ryan Switzer was UNC's all-everything return man.  However, I was wrong.  UNC's primary kick returner is running back TJ Logan.  Logan has 15 returns for 385 yards, an average of 25.7 yards per return, and a long of 74 yards.  Logan's 74 yard return was in the offensive explosion game against East Carolina.  Romar Morris has 4 returns for 89 yards, an average of 22.2 yards per return.  After those two, Khris Francis, Quinshad Davis, Damien Washington, and Ryan Switzer all have one return a piece, for 23, 2, 17, and 17 yards respectively.  Logan is going to get the bulk of the returns in this game.  How did he return the 74 yarder?

UNCKickReturn

As you can see, Logan had a wide open lane that was unfilled by an East Carolina coverage man.  Once he hit the hole, he weaved his way, constantly scanning for a new route, and took it straight down the sidelines.  He recognized where his blocks were and followed them.  He is smart.  Because of that, he can be a handful.  Notre Dame is going to need to play smart this weekend to limit his threat.  Coverage like this will not cut it.

UNC Punt Return

The Ryan Switzer Show comes to South Bend this weekend.  OFD's very own Eric Murtaugh wrote extensively about Ryan Switzer in the off-season and he is exactly right (and I highly suggest you read Eric's article in addition to mine). Switzer is an unbelievable talent, having returned an unbelievable 5 punts for touchdowns as a true freshman.

That said, UNC's opponents appear to have caught on to Switzer this season and thus his numbers are WAY down from last season.  So far, he has 21 returns for 103 yards, an average of 4.9 yards per return.  His long is 30 yards which, if you remove that from the total, his average drops.  He has yet to score a touchdown this season on a punt return.   The 30 yard return came against Liberty University.

As you can see, even though this was against Liberty, Switzer is still a proper threat in the punt returning game.  He had time to run, a lane to run, and with his speed, he made it down field quickly.

However, there is an important point that I found when looking through the box scores and stat sheets.  UNC's opponents have punted 27 times. This means that Switzer attempted a return on all but 6 of these punts.  One was touched back and three were fair caught, leaving the others to have been downed or kicked out of bounds.  In short, if Notre Dame punts the ball and Switzer catches it, odds are is he is going to try to return it.

To combat this, I would like to see ND boot the ball for the pylon on every punt.  This will get it out of bounds and/or put Switzer in a corner to prevent him from having the whole field to work with.  ND was able to bottle up Ty Montgomery and they can do the same with Switzer if they are smart.

As always, I welcome your questions and comments below.