The perfect kicker of this season is the imperfect kicker of last season. There’s no hotshot recruit or graduate transfer banging in field goals for North Carolina. It’s still Nick Weiler.
Same person, same leg, same long hair, new attitude. That’s all it is. The same guy who couldn’t find the uprights from more than 30 yards out in 2014 can’t miss in 2015, going 2-for-2 from 48 and 32 yards in Saturday’s 48-14 win over Illinois to keep his record unblemished.
There may not be a single position on any college football team in the country that has improved this much from the season before than North Carolina’s kicking game, which didn’t make a single field goal of more than 30 yards last season and has five already this season.
It’s just Weiler, only exponentially better. Which is enough to make him wonder why he couldn’t have done this last year.
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“Oh, yeah,” Weiler said Saturday. “The past is the past, though. You learn from your mistakes, try to keep your attitude looking forward.”
Weiler played kicker, punter, safety, wide receiver and punt returner in high school in Virginia. He didn’t go to any of the high-profile kicking camps. He didn’t even realize he was a potential college player until his junior or senior year, at which point he walked on at North Carolina, a sort of accidental kicker. (He’s since earned a scholarship.)
After redshirting his first year, he handled kickoffs as a freshman and again last season, when he claimed the placekicking job from returning senior starter Thomas Moore early in the season. Weiler was 5-for-8 on short field goals before a pair of misses from 39 and 43 yards against Virginia and a missed extra point against Miami. By November, it was Moore’s job again, although he wasn’t any better.
We wanted to make a long field goal. We wanted that opportunity.
UNC kicker Nick Weiler
With no reliable option in the kicking game, the Tar Heels were reduced to going for it on fourth down or punting from the wrong side of the 50. That was as damaging to morale as it was on the scoreboard.
So there was no small amount of trepidation when Weiler took the field in the opener against South Carolina earlier this month for a 47-yard attempt. There was also never a doubt when the kick left his foot. He’s made all four since.
“We definitely didn’t want to start with a 23-yarder,” Weiler said. “That wouldn’t prove anything. We wanted to make a long field goal. We wanted that opportunity.”
Weiler said he was still feeling the effects last season of surgery to correct a double sports hernia, an injury caused by overexerting on kickoffs. Instead of trying to get back into shape this offseason, he was able to do nothing but kick with holder Joey Mangili and snapper Kyle Murphy. He also shortened his approach on kick attempts, but as technical tweaks go, it’s not enough to account for this much improvement.
There’s only the always-nebulous sense of confidence that elevates or afflicts the performance of kickers and golfers and free-throw shooters, that seems immune to coaching or treatment or attention and just comes and goes on its own whims.
“I bet he would tell you, the 48-yarder, he didn’t really hit it well but he put it through the uprights,” North Carolina coach Larry Fedora said. “He’s just got a lot of confidence right now.”
And the Tar Heels have points they wouldn’t have had last season. On an afternoon where just about everything went right for North Carolina, Weiler’s kicking just kept on going. So, for that matter, has his hair, which was cut short when he arrived in Chapel Hill but now flows out from under his helmet and was in a tidy man bun after the game Saturday.
One of North Carolina’s biggest weaknesses a year ago has become one of its biggest strengths this season without so much as a haircut.
DeCock: email@example.com, @LukeDeCock, 919-829-8947