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August 10, 2012
Making special teams special
You'll have to parden UNC head coach Larry Fedora for not immediately knowing who you're talking about when you say the name Casey Barth.
Barth is a fifth-year senior who has made a school-record 71 consecutive extra points and needs just five field goals this fall to surpass his older brother Connor Barth, to become UNC's all-time leading field goal specialist. That's all true.
But as a place kicker, Barth hasn't necessarily been on Fedora's mind nearly as much in the first week of training camp this summer as the remainder of the special teams units, and of course the offense and defense as a whole.
"Oh yeah, a kicker," Fedora said to laughs from the media when asked about Barth following Thursday's practice. "I've got a lot of names now. That's a lot of names to be thinking about."
On a more serious note, Barth has gotten fully healthy after sitting out last season, and so far in camp he's been seen booming kicks through the uprights in field goal individual and team drills.
"Casey Barth, he's had no problem with his leg in talking to him. He feels good. He feels strong," Fedora said. "We're making sure that we're monitoring how many kicks he gets, because we want to make sure he doesn't get fatigued because that's easy to do in camp when you're going every day."
Tar Heel fans know that Barth is a consistent and reliable option on field goals and extra points, but the big question with the kicking game this summer---aside of Barth being healthy---is whether he or someone else can become a reliable option on kickoffs.
With the biggest goal being to get Barth through the summer healthy and fresh for the season, the UNC coaches are trying to strike a healthy balance between getting him work on kickoffs, as well as Carolina's other place kickers, Thomas Moore and Miller Snyder.
"When you start working kickoffs, that takes a lot out of your leg," Fedora said. "But I think he feels pretty good right now, and we've got to maintain that feeling throughout the fall.
"He (Barth) kicked three or four in the end zone (Wednesday)," Fedora added about Barth. "The key is just making sure he doesn't do too much."
Special teams are often the difference between wins and losses on Saturdays, and Fedora knows that better than anybody.
"We're going to win or lose with them (special teams). That's the key," Fedora said.
UNC's special teams improved in a lot of ways under former head coach Butch Davis---there were more blocked kicks thanks to guys like Bruce Carter----but the Tar Heels were woeful at times covering kickoffs and punts.
Brandon Tate was obviously a huge bright spot during his run in Chapel Hill (2005-2008), but the Tar Heels haven't had anyone in the past three seasons come even close to the type of consistent return production that Tate had.
But now, with a large group of players battling for playing time on special teams and a set of coaches fiercely determined to make it a primary focus of the team's overall philosophy, special teams has a chance to be special again in Chapel Hill in the not too distant future.
During his time at Southern Miss, Fedora's teams were as balanced on special teams as they were effective.
During Fedora's time in Hattiesburg the Golden Eagles featured players like Tracy Lampley, a 5-9 sparkplug who was the MVP of Southern Miss's Hawaii Bowl victory last December.
Lampley was one of just five players in FBS to score on both a punt return and a kickoff return in Fedora's second season at Southern Miss (2009), and last fall Lampley, as a junior, was named first-team All-Conference USA as a punt returner.
In all, Southern Miss returned three punts for touchdowns in 2011.
In an effort to find North Carolina's version of Lampley, the Tar Heel coaches have been running in several players to return kicks and punts in training camp, including Reggie Wilkins, Sean Tapley, Erik Highsmith, Damien Washington, Kedrick Davis, and walk-on Roy Smith.
Along with finding quality return men comes putting together aggressive return teams that can attack opposing units and get some blocked kicks while also occasionally springing holes that lead to big runbacks.
In Fedora's final two games at Southern Miss---the Conference USA championship game against Houston and the Hawaii Bowl against Nevada---the Golden Eagles blocked punts in both games, helping lead to wins in both contests.
At North Carolina's practices both now and in the spring, one can see just how big special teams are to the Fedora coaching staff, as the staff spends large chunks of pre-team drills focusing on catching kicks, setting up to attempt and defend against field goals, and running downfield in lanes in kickoff coverage.
During the spring we saw them working on body placement and timing on getting to a punter's foot to block a punt without barreling into him and getting a penalty.
"We definitely do more (on special teams) than other teams I've been involved with. And we were really good the last four years," Fedora said. "So we're going to continue to do it that way. And it's not just an emphasis for me. It's an emphasis for every coach on the staff."
While starting players are sometimes not considered for key special teams roles on a lot of college football teams, that's not the way Fedora does it.
He wants starting players on both sides of the ball competing for playing time on the various return and coverage units as much as they're fighting for a spot on either the offensive or defensive depth chart.
"Whether you're the D-line coach, you're harping on your guys about fighting to get on the special teams, or the O-line coach or whoever, you're constantly staying on your guys about making sure they understand how important that phase is for us," Fedora said.
With that type of attitude, it's hard to imagine the Tar Heels not improving in special teams this season and in the coming years---and for several thrilling plays to be in the program's future in the not too distant future.