2013 Virginia Football Previews: Special Teams

Geoff Burke

Last year, the Hoos special teams were poor. Very poor. Like, probably the worst in the nation. They hired a noted special teams guru, Larry Lewis. Will he be able to turn it around?

In 2012, the Hoos special teams were terrible. They were 111th in punt returns, and 73rd in kick returns. They were 69th in net punting, which includes 81st in punt coverage. They were 119th in kick return coverage, giving up 2 KR TDs, and almost 10 yards per punt return. As a team, they were 11/16 in FGs, including a miss from just 22 yards out.

The only special teams unit that was any good was the FG defense, as opponents made just 14 out of 21 FGs (a slightly worse percentage than the Hoos made). That would be interesting if the Hoos had blocked some kicks, but they did not block a single kick all year.

And it wasn't just last year. Check out this chart below. The Hoos special teams have mostly been a disaster for some time now. When was the last time a Wahoo returned a punt for a TD? What about a kickoff? (Answers below.)

Year

Punt Return Rank

Kick Return Rank

Punt Return Defense Rank

Kick Return Defense Rank

2012

111

73

81

119

2011

93

57

65

64

2010

81

65

64

67

2009

93

113

71

31

2008

92

70

16

72

2007

56

89

66

60

2006

67

11

21

102

2005

87

24

44

43

2004

35

2

101

85

2003

64

7

48

59

2002

62

28

24

74

2001

79

45

84

75

2000

106

37

74

98

There are some bright spots in there, but the Hoos haven't been good, across the board, in special teams during this millennium. They've had some pretty good FG kickers, including Robert Randolph (2008-2011 46/60 FGs, 81/81 XPs), Chris Gould (2006-2007 27/39 FGs, 53/55 XPs), and most of all Connor Hughes (2002-2005, 66/79 FGs, 134/138 XPs). They've also had some good punters, including Mike Abrams (2000-2001, 42.6 ypa) and Ryan Weigand (2006-2007, 44.3 ypa).

That chart is sad, but the saddest year is last year. The Hoos special teams were terrible, and directly cost the team wins. Something had to be done. The Hoos needed a real special teams coordinator. Enter Larry Lewis. The chart below shows Larry Lewis' special teams ranks over the past five years.

Year

School

Punt Return Rk

Kick Return Rk

Punt Ret. Defense Rk

Kick Ret. Defense Rk

2012

Nevada

4

78

113

90

2011

Colorado State

36

21

71

114

2010

Colorado State

69

19

69

114

2009

Colorado State

67

37

116

103

2008

Colorado State

56

38

104

112

Well that's disappointing. His teams were pretty solid at returns, but pretty terrible at stopping the other team's returns. I guess that's progress, considering the Hoos were bad at both.

Lewis also spent 7 years as the head coach of Idaho St, an FCS school. Let's take a look at how those teams faired on special teams. These are ranks among FCS schools. Stats for 1999 (Lewis' first year at the helm) are not available.

Year

Punt Returns

Kick Returns

Punt Return Defense

Kick Return Defense

2006

37

80

23

25

2005

23

73

77

116

2004

48

81

78

70

2003

15

71

109

113

2002

19

51

47

49

2001

47

75

4

117

2000

7

70

14

100

Not a ton to work with here either. The numbers are all over the place. The KR defense is particularly troubling, considering how bad the Hoos were in that phase last season. Once again, Lewis' teams tend to be pretty solid in the return game, especially punt returns. That is promising, considering how long it has been since the Hoos had a strong PR unit.

Well, our new hotshot Special Teams Coordinator is a bit of a disappointment, at least on paper. In coaching circles, for some reason, Lewis is highly respected in the coaching community as a special teams guru. Let's take a quick look at what Lewis has to work with.

Trivia Question Answers

The last Punt Return TD for the Hoos was Alvin Pearman in 2004. The last Kick Return TD was Raynard Horne in 2010 (prior to that was Marquis Weeks in 2004).

Personnel

The first name on everybody's mind when it comes to special teams this year is Smoke. Taquan Mizzell is likely to begin the season as the primary PR. He's the best open field runner on the team, and the coaching staff needs to find ways to get the ball in his hands. We haven't had a guy with his ability returning punts in quite some time.

Khalek Shepherd will likely be the primary KR guy, a role he was solid in last year. He broke the team record for KR yards, but averaged only 22 yards per carry, good for 68th in the nation. Not great, but solid.

For the coverage teams, Coach Lewis has been promised he can use anybody he wants. That means we should continue to see TE Jake McGee in punt coverage, a role he has excelled in for 2 years now. Hopefully, it also means some of the more talented DBs such as Wil Wahee and Maurice Canady will be involved on coverage units. LBs such as D.J. Hill and Kwontie Moore should also be involved.

As for the specialists, we know that Alex Vozenilek will be punting. The junior averaged over 40 yards per punt last year (65th in the nation) and did not have a punt blocked. Sadly, he was the high point of the special teams last season. RS freshman James Coleman would be the punter should something happen to Voz.

The PK position, however, is up for grabs. Last year, Ian Frye was the backup PK and primary KOS (kick off specialist). Frye, however, wasn't great at either role, and could be supplanted by RSFr Dylan Sims in either (or both) of those roles.

Matt Fortin is the long snapper for both FGs and punts, a role he excelled in last year, and should continue to this year. Fortin was so good that he's earned himself a scholarship. He's also just a junior, so we know that position will be steady for the next 2 seasons.

Sadly, that's about all we can be confident in when it comes to special teams.

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