In 2016, North Carolina and N.C. State traveled south to face the top Atlantic Division powers. For the majority of each game, the Triangle schools held serve — UNC dominated Florida State for three quarters, and N.C. State stifled Clemson all game long. But, as fans of both teams know, the ACC powers fought back, putting each North Carolina school’s kicker in a bright spotlight.
I know how it ended. You know how it ended.
Carolina’s Nick Weiler sank a 54-yarder, delivering a crushing 37-35 loss in Tallahassee — the silence in Doak Campbell stadium was tangible as Weiler ran down the field tomahawk-chopping at the Florida State student section.
N.C. State’s Kyle Bambard shanked a 33-yarder, sending a 17-17 game into overtime in front of a frenzied Death Valley crowd. The Wolfpack ultimately lost to the eventual national champions.
Weiler received adoration. Bambard received death threats.
Both teams know the importance of a reliable kicker. For the present version of Carolina football, the kicker who replaces Weiler — now a revered UNC alum — finds himself looking back on a tough act to follow.
“It’s not necessarily what we lost and what I need to do now,” said Freeman Jones, a junior placekicker who backed up Weiler in 2016. “Three points is three points.”
Jones stressed the importance of preparation — both mental and physical.
“To me, as long as you prepare yourself and are ready for the moment, then (people should never) question, ‘Oh crap, is this kicker going to make this kick or not?'” Jones said. “As long as you prepare yourself and have a good mindset and you’re mentally tough, then you don’t think, ‘Am I going to miss?’”
Carolina rosters three kickers for the upcoming season: Jones, true freshman Noah Ruggles — who comes to UNC as a highly-touted recruit — and walk-on-freshman Cooper Graham, who will likely place behind Jones and Ruggles on the depth chart.
During the first minicamp scrimmage, Jones and Ruggles alternated kicks from beyond 40 yards. Neither missed.
"I think the numbers speak for themselves,” Jones said.
Coaches will likely favor Jones for the starting spot because of his experience, but expect Ruggles to compete. Jones said Ruggles' excellent kicking has provided motivation as the two trade perfect performances.
“He’s definitely stepped up as a young guy and he’s absolutely pushing me," Jones said, "especially when he goes and he makes all his kicks and forces me to make all of my kicks."
They might not be Weiler — they likely won't be Bambard, either. But for a team many project to be average next year, the Tar Heels' kicking game might be enough for an extra push in the ACC Coastal.