2014 ACC Preview: Special Teams Unit Rankings

Posted Aug 13, 2014

Preview 2014 - Atlantic Coast Special Teams Unit Rankings

Special Teams


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1. North Carolina
Ryan Switzer was a Carolina revelation last year, tying an NCAA record with five punt returns for touchdowns in his debut out of high school. Even if he lacks the same pop and explosiveness as a sophomore, he’s going to force opposing staffs to gameplan just to avoid him. Otherwise, T.J. Thorpe and T.J. Logan are back to handle kickoffs, and PK Thomas Moore and P Tommy Hibbard are returning regulars. Logan took two kicks back for six, while Hibbard will again compete to be the premier punter in the ACC.
Unit Ranking: 9

2. Duke
Sometimes, it’s the little things that transform a close loss into a gut-check win. Special teams often helped provide the difference for the Blue Devils last season. Duke arguably boasts the most complete unit in the ACC. Back for another season are PK Ross Martin, P Will Monday and PR Jamison Crowder, each of whom earned some level of All-ACC recognition. Plus, DeVon Edwards returned a pair of kickoffs back for touchdowns, en route to being named Freshman All-American as a return specialist. Martin was just 9-of-15 on field goals of 30 yards or more, which ought to improve in 2014.
Unit Ranking: 9

3. Florida State
In what could only be described as an embarrassment of riches, the Seminoles have multiple weapons on special teams as well. PK Roberto Aguayo won the Lou Groza Award, Cason Beatty is back for a third year as the punter and Kermit Whitfield emerged as one of the game’s most dangerous kick returners. While Aguayo and Whitfield can penciled in as all-leaguers, Beatty has room for improvement, and a new punt returner must be developed. The junior ranked last in ACC net punting, capped by an awkward performance in the BCS National Championship Game.
Unit Ranking: 8.5

4. Georgia Tech
Now that return man extraordinaire Jamal Golden has been granted an additional year of eligibility, the Yellow Jackets have the ingredients of a difference-making special teams unit. He missed most of 2013 to injury, but just a year earlier took a pair of punts back for touchdowns. Tech is also set at placekicker with Harrison Butker, who’s poised to build on his rookie debut. While Sean Poole has graduated, the team is expected to make a smooth recovery at punter with Ryan Rodwell, a scholarship athlete with experience from two years ago.
Unit Ranking: 8

5. Louisville
The Cardinals are not facing any turnover on special teams, which could provide a slight edge in tight games. Junior John Wallace is one of the nation’s most prolific placekickers. He’s also accurate, nailing 20-of-24 field goal attempts a season ago. Also returning is starting P Ryan Johnson, who averaged 41.2 yards per attempt in 2013, and was a key reason his team led the American in punt coverage. Louisville was solid in the return game as well, getting good field position from Charles Gaines on kickoffs and Eli Rogers on punts.
Unit Ranking: 7.5

6. Miami
The graduation of Pat O’Donnell, who set a single-season Miami record for punting average, will hurt this program more than it’ll be given credit. His heir has yet to be determined. It could be junior Matt Goudis, who also serves as the Canes’ regular placekicker. Or Florida transfer Justin Vogel could snatch up the job. As the placekicker, Goudis was 13-of-17 on field goals last year. Miami will bring all kinds of speed to the return game, from Stacy Coley and Artie Burns to possibly Duke Johnson. The program was no lower than fourth in the ACC last year in both kickoff and punt returns.
Unit Ranking: 8

7. Virginia Tech
The Hokies, long associated with difference-making special teams play, have spent the offseason working on field goals and extra points. Tech was miserable on field goals in 2013, missing on almost as many as they made. Michael Branthover finished the year as the placekicker, but he’s no guarantee to win the job in the fall, creating an overall unsettled situation. Uncertainty is not the case at punter, where junior A.J. Hughes was an All-ACC performer last year. The program can use a jolt in the return game, especially after finishing 107th nationally in punt return average.
Unit Ranking: 7.5

8. Clemson
The big story on special teams centers on replacing four-year starting PK Chandler Catanzaro, the Tigers’ all-time leading scorer. Junior Ammon Lakip is the likely successor to Catanzaro. The situation is far more stable at punter, where Bradley Pinion is back for a second season on the job. In his debut, he traded power for precision, impressively dropping 24 punts inside the 20, without any touchbacks. Among the return men, Adam Humphries earned attaboys by being one of just 26 FBS players to average more than 10 yards a punt return in 2013.
Unit Ranking: 7.5

9. Syracuse
Once Ross Krautman was granted a fifth year of eligibility, the Orange was assured of having one of the better placekickers in the ACC. The senior, who missed most of last year to an injury, is one of the most accurate kickers in school history. P Riley Dixon is back in Upstate as well to give Syracuse depth and experience in the kicking game. However, the team is still searching for more explosiveness out of the return game after finishing no higher than No. 10 in the league in both punt returns and kickoff returns.
Unit Ranking: 7

10. NC State
The Pack returns both of last year’s kicking specialists, senior P Wil Baumann and honorable mention All-ACC PK Niklas Sade. Baumann averaged more than 42 yards a boot last year, while Sade was good on 19-of-23 field goal tries, including 5-of-8 outside 40 yards. Both players are very long, with good pop in their legs. Replacing return man Rashard Smith and sealing the holes in kick coverage have been offseason priorities. Smith handled both kickoffs and punts a year ago, taking two of the latter back for touchdowns in 2013.
Unit Ranking: 7

11. Virginia
Senior Alec Vozenilek is back for one more year to pull double-duty for the Cavalier special teams unit. He was UVa’s punter and placekicker a season ago, performing both tasks modestly well. He averaged 41.2 yards per punt to rank ninth in the ACC, while missing only three field goals. However, his accuracy outside of 40 yards is questionable. Offensive skill players Darius Jennings, Dominique Terrell and Taquan Mizell are all back to help incite a return game that was very light on explosive plays in 2013.
Unit Ranking: 7

12. Boston College
When Nate Freese graduated, the Eagles lost not only the First Team All-ACC kicker, but also their starting punter. After patiently waiting his turn, junior Alex Howell appears ready to finally supplant Freese—possibly at both positions. The drop-off in production and special teams savvy will be inevitable in 2014. None of the return men are particularly frightening, especially if projected starting RB Myles Willis ceases handling kickoffs. Last year’s coverage teams were sound, which can be directly traced to the kicking efforts of Freese.
Unit Ranking: 6.5

13. Pittsburgh
Beyond the specificity in personnel, the Panthers simply had too many overall breakdowns on special teams last year. For instance, they allowed four returns for touchdowns, including three on punts. And they produced just one score of their own. The specialists will be a mixed bag. Chris Blewitt had a nice start to his career, missing just 4-of-18 field goal attempts. But powerful P Matt Yoklic has graduated. Redshirt freshman Ryan Winslow, Yoklic’s understudy in 2013, is being counted on to take over the job this fall.
Unit Ranking: 6.5

14. Wake Forest
The Demon Deacons labored in just about every phase of special teams last season, taxing an already overmatched offense and defense. Wake Forest was bad in all areas, with the punt and returns games sticking out as especially inconsistent. It’s a weakness that the new staff must address. Junior PK Chase Hedlund did showcase some upside potential when given an opportunity to flex his leg. He nailed a career-best 51-yarder and displayed good strength on kickoffs, but he was only had a dozen opportunities to attempt a field goal in 2013.
Unit Ranking: 6