Bring up special teams to a Virginia fan and you're likely to see them begin to sweat and shudder in PTSD-like flashbacks. There's the Wake Forest loss where the punt bounced off Khalek Shepherd's facemask late in the fourth quarter, the complete lack of awareness on the surprise onside kick performed by UNC last season, and of course the infamous 'KHALEK GET OFF THE FIELD!' moment against Louisiana Tech. Look past those individual plays, however, and you see a unit that has made strides in past seasons, even contributing to last year's upset win over Louisville by recovering a muffed punt late in the fourth quarter. With significant turnover within the group, let's take a closer look at the players who will be tasked with making sure that progress continues and that Wahoo fans aren't left with further nightmare-inducing moments.
The Kicking Game
The good news for the UVa kicking game is that both placekicker Ian Frye and kickoff specialist Dylan Sims, who had a 45% touchback rate, return from last year's team. Frye was incredibly reliable last year, connecting on 22 out of 27 field goals, an 81.5% conversion rate that ranked 30th in the NCAA, and 34 out of 35 extra points. Perhaps most impressively, all five of Frye's misses came on attempts of 40 yards or further, with three of the five occurring on kicks of over 50 yards. You can hardly blame Frye for missing kicks of that length as even NFL kickers struggle with 50+ yarders and he was perfect on all the chip shots within 39 yards.
The outlook is murkier at punter after mainstay Alec Vozenilek graduated following last season (sadly his basketball playing brother Rob graduated as well, devastating the Vozenilek population in Charlottesville). Vozenilek's departed right foot leaves a big shoe to fill as he averaged 42.5 yards per punt last season and was able to down 26% of his punts inside the opposing 20 yard line. Taking over punting duties this season is junior Nicholas Conte. Conte has not yet seen the field as a Cavalier, but he did average 40.3 yards per punt in high school, so the leg strength is clearly there for him to be effective.
The Return Game
The return aspect of special teams is a bit of a mystery heading into the fall as both of last year's key return men, Darius Jennings and Khalek Shepherd, graduated and the post-spring depth chart doesn't cover return assignments. That being said, the overwhelming presumption appears to be that junior Taquan Mizzell will handle kickoff duty while UNC graduate transfer T.J. Thorpe takes over on punt returns.
Mizzell returned nine kicks last year with an average of 23.1 yards per return. While Mizzell possesses the top-end speed necessary to be a weapon in the return game, he still needs to work on running north-south and following his blocks as opposed to attempting to make every return a gamebreaker. Virginia's kickoff return team ranked 7th nationally last year in yards per kick return, so the openings will be there for Mizzell to find.
Punt returns were a different story last season as UVa finished 114th in the NCAA at just 4.42 yards per punt return. Not all of this was Khalek Shepherd's fault, at moments he barely had time to look down before defenders were upon him. but it still can't hurt to get someone fresh in the role. Enter T.J. Thorpe. Thorpe actually didn't handle punt return duties last year at UNC, but in 2013 he returned five punts for the Tar Heels for a total of 42 yards, an average 8.4 yards per return. That's an admittedly small sample size, but I imagine Virginia fans would be ecstatic with averaging eight yards per punt return this season, and Thorpe's success as a kick returner at UNC as well suggests he has the instincts necessary to be successful.
As we mentioned at the top, Virginia fans, perhaps more than any other fanbase, recognize just how much of an impact special teams can have on a game and a season. The good news is that Ian Frye provides stability on field goals and, while it's never good to lose both your return men, Mizzell and Thorpe have the talent and experience necessary to make an impact. Admittedly, Conte is a question mark at punter but if he can produce at a league-average level this is a unit that could sway a few games in UVa's favor this season.