Used to be, North Carolina could cross an opponent's 20-yard line and still not really be certain that it'd finish a drive with points. Used to be, Tar Heels coach Larry Fedora faced an internal debate on fourth downs around an opponent's 30: go for it or punt.
That's all changed now, though, given that UNC has found itself a reliable placekicker. Turns out, he's Nick Weiler – the same guy the Tar Heels had last season … but different. Our Luke DeCock wrote about Weiler after he made two (more) field goals during UNC's 48-14 victory against Illinois.
Weiler showed up to the postgame interviews after that one wearing a light-colored suit, his long hair done up in what DeCock accurately described as a “man bun.” (Had the phrase “man bun” ever appeared in this publication before? It has now.)
It was a professional look in the postgame on Saturday for Weiler, who has taken a professional approach to kicking field goals: walk on onto the field, kick the ball through the uprights, walk off, repeat. And yet it didn't happen at all like that a season ago.
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Last season, between Weiler and fellow kicker Thomas Moore, UNC didn't make a field goal of longer than 30 yards. Weiler and Moore were a combined 6-for-13 on field goals a season ago, and Weiler made five of those.
He has made five field goals already through the first three games this season. Three of those have been of at least 47 yards. Weiler's emergence has added a dimension to UNC's offense that didn't exist a season ago. The Tar Heels have options now that they didn't before.
“It affects the way you call plays,” UNC coach Larry Fedora said of his newfound reliance in the kicking game. “There’s no dobut. You cross the 50 (and) you start thinking about points. And as far as when you get in that fringe area of the red zone, you know you’re getting points there.”
Last season, if a UNC drive stalled near the opponent's 35-yard line the Tar Heels had two options: go for it or punt. Weiler has given them another option this season. On Saturday I asked Weiler what his field goal range is. He didn't hesitate to answer.
“I feel comfortable with 55 (yards) and in,” he said.
He went on to say that on the 48-yard field goal he made against Illinois, he “got under” it and hit it too high. Yet it was straight and still seemed to have some distance to spare.
“A good mishit,” Weiler said.
That provides an idea of how far he's has come. Even his misses are makes. The difference for Weiler these days is in his confidence. He didn't have much of it last season when he went onto the field to attempt field goals, and now he has it in abundance.
And that sort of thing can be contagious, too. Fedora has become a believer in Weiler. And Weiler has made believers of his teammates, who sometimes like to give him a hard time about his hair and about his physique, which is more linebacker than typical kicker.
“We compare him to coach Fedora,” Marquise Williams, the senior quarterback, said with a laugh. “We tell him he's coach Fedora's son.”
Fedora is known, too, for his muscles, and when a shirtless picture of him circulated on Twitter a while back it became a story. Sometimes, Williams said, the Fedora comments rile Weiler up. Not that Williams has plans to stop.
“I'm going to keep calling him little coach Fedora,” he said. “That's what I'm going to do.”
When it comes to Weiler and his kicking, maybe that's not a bad idea – for everyone to keep doing what they've been doing. For the nicknames to continue and for Weiler to keep growing his hair and for all the routines to stay the same as they've been through the first three games.
A quarter of the way through this season the Tar Heels have what they lacked all of last season: the confidence and comfort that once they hit an opponent's 35-yard line, they have a good chance to score.