UNC Football: 2023 Positional Preview: Special Teams

WINSTON-SALEM, NC - SEPTEMBER 13: Ben Kiernan #91 of the University of North Carolina punts the ball during a game between University of North Carolina and Wake Forest University at BB (Photo by Andy Mead/ISI Photos/Getty Images)
WINSTON-SALEM, NC - SEPTEMBER 13: Ben Kiernan #91 of the University of North Carolina punts the ball during a game between University of North Carolina and Wake Forest University at BB (Photo by Andy Mead/ISI Photos/Getty Images) /

Our 2023 UNC football position previews conclude with the special teams unit, which has experience and a new face at a position.

We’ve come to the final position/unit to preview for the UNC football program’s upcoming 2023 season. Do you know what that means? Kickoff is just right around the corner, and it’s time to get excited.

Now, special teams…

One area of special teams was good last year, and one area needs improvement. If you watched in 2022, you most likely know which one is which. Punting was good, kicking needs improvement. The UNC football coaching staff hopes they were able to address the kicking area during the offseason.

What We Know

Punters and kickers aren’t as exciting as a running back or wide receiver, but they are still important. The UNC football program is hoping that they don’t have to see the punt team much as they are expecting Drake Maye to put the ball in the end zone, but every now and then, punting is going to happen. Last year, Ben Kiernan averaged 46.8 yards per punt and placed 18 of his 48 punts inside the 20-yard line.

Noah Burnette was the placekicker in 2022 and made 15 of 21 attempts, his longest being a 47-yard field goal. However, will he be the placekicker in 2023? The UNC football coaching staff brought in a transfer from Cincinnati during the offseason, Ryan Coe.

The Key Players

We’ve covered the key players in the what we know portion for the most part. Kiernan will be important once again in determining field position when the offense happens to stall and get into a fourth-down situation that isn’t manageable. The defense hopes to be better in 2023, but if Kiernan can consistently pin opposing offenses inside the 20, 10, or even 5-yard lines, then that can strengthen the defense even more. After a career-best season in 2022, Kiernan was named to the preseason Ray Guy Award watch list for 2023.

Coe is going into his fifth season, spending one season at Cincinnati, and prior to that, he was at Delaware. He has set the single-season record for field goal accuracy at both of his previous stops. Most recently, in 2022 with the Bearcats, he was 19 for 23 on field goals with a season-long of 52 yards and perfect on PATs, making 44. Coe was named to the preseason Lou Groza Award Watch list for 2023.


Kiernan will be the punter and go-to guy in that situation. Last year we saw the UNC football offense tend to go for it on fourth down more often than in the past. Anything under fourth and five, and the offense started to roll the dice and go for it. When you have the talent under center that the Tar Heels have with Drake Maye, there is more confidence in moving the sticks and keeping the punting team on the sideline. Even then, Kiernan needs to be at his absolute best to put the defense in a position to succeed.

The coaching staff hasn’t said who will be the placekicker in eight days when the Tar Heels take the field against South Carolina, but the assumption has to be Ryan Coe. His experience and ability to put the ball through the goalpost at his previous two stops are a huge plus and must be considered. Burnette was average last year, but anything outside of 35-40 yards felt uncomfortable. This was shown on the last play of the 2022 season when Mack Brown opted to go for a hail mary to end the Holiday Bowl instead of giving Burnette a chance at a 58-yard field goal to win the game.

This isn’t to say that Coe is going to come in hitting 55-yard field goal attempts, but he has shown the capability of consistently hitting from longer range than that of Burnette. Head coach Mack Brown has shown he likes to have a placekicker and kickoff specialist in the past, so we will assume for this preview that Burnette will still see time as the kickoff guy. Unfortunately though, until the Tar Heels take the field next Saturday night, we really don’t know what this unit will look like.

What we do know is that the kicking team needs to be better at putting the ball through the uprights to allow the offense some relief so that they aren’t feeling the pressure they have to score a touchdown every single drive in order to score points, which was a similar point in 2023.

Depth Chart

Punter – Ben Kiernan

Backup – Cole Maynard / Tom Maginness

Placekicker – Ryan Coe

Backup – Noah Burnette / Liam Boyd

Kickoff Specialist – Noah Burnette

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