CHARLOTTE — North Carolina punter Tommy Hibbard had to learn a few things and make a few changes to his game when Larry Fedora took over as coach after the 2011 season.
Although he resisted at first, Hibbard – who won N.C. 4AA titles at Butler in 2009-10 – has come to appreciate the moves and what they’ve led to: the Tar Heels becoming one of the nation’s leaders on special teams.
“Last year was a building year for us, because of the new coaches and everything,” Hibbard said Tuesday after North Carolina began its game-week preparations for Saturday’s Belk Bowl against Cincinnati at Bank of America Stadium.
“We were pretty much trying to get used to everything. This year, I was finally able to work on things during the offseason and build on what we did.”
Hibbard, a 5-foot-10 junior, has played a big part in the success of the Tar Heels’ punting team, which led the ACC and was 13th among Football Bowl Subdivision teams in net punting yards at 40.0 per game.
Although Hibbard’s punting average dropped slightly from his sophomore year – from 43.0 yards per game to 42.9– he has been more effective in what North Carolina special teams coordinator Randy Jordan calls “the money kicks.”
“The biggest thing you see that he’s so much better at is what I call ‘the money kicks,’ the ones where you’ve got to pin an opponent back and create a long field,” said Jordan, who took over as the Tar Heels’ special teams coach this season.
“He takes pride in doing that, nailing that ball inside the (opponents’) 10, or getting one off like a rocket where you’ve got to flip the field. It’s just his confidence level, and you can see the ‘pop’ he gets when he gets a kick off.
“What you’re seeing is just a maturation process he’s taken from when he first came in (in 2011) and now.”
Hibbard’s confidence was tested last season, when a newly hired Fedora began making changes. On special teams – and Hibbard in particular – he added more “rugby-style” punts, which allows for more distance on kicks at the expense of accuracy.
Hibbard has seen the payoff this season – out of 61 punts, more than a third (22) were downed inside an opponent’s 20. He also had a career-best 76-yard punt against Boston College, had 12 punts end with a fair catch, six others end in a touchback and had only one punt blocked.
“It keeps the defense on their toes,” Hibbard said of rugby-style punts. “We can do more things with it.
“I was kind of dead-set against it at first, because I had never done anything like that. But seeing how it’s helped our team, I’m kinda enjoying what we’re doing.”