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Virginia Cavaliers Football Primer: Special Teams

UVA, Explained: Understanding the role of special teams.

NCAA Football: Georgia Tech at Virginia Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

We’re back with the final installment of our “UVA, Explained” series. This week we’re all about special teams, you know... the guys who do things that involve kicking?

Special teams is Ricky Brumfield’s area of expertise. He’s the newest addition to Mendenhall’s staff, joining the team just this January. He came to the Cavaliers from the University of Texas San Antonio, where he successfully coordinated the UTSA’s special teams and coached the team’s tight ends during the 2016 and 2017 seasons. He’ll only be focusing on special teams at Virginia, an area where he has a pretty impressive track record.

Consider: UTSA’s special teams unit posted an S&P+ rating almost a full point higher than Virginia’s in 2017. In other words, in each game last season, Brumfield’s unit helped the Roadrunners by adding about a half point per game; UVA’s special teams hurt the team to the tune of about half a point each game.

UTSA was especially good in kick and punt coverage. Their 2.88 yards allowed per return put UTSA at 6th nationally; UVA was 117th at 13.08. Even with Lester Coleman being named second-team All-ACC in 2017, the UTSA punting unit was ranked 70 spots higher than the Cavaliers in net punting.

As our own Brian Leung wrote when Brumfield was first hired, Brumfield’s “special teams set multiple records in his first season coaching them, including the number of touchbacks, points, extra points, and punting average by the special teams during the 2016 season.”

But what role do Brumfield’s special teams units play? Good question.

Simply put, special teams are 11-man units that are on the field during kicking plays. The “specialists” group includes kickers, punters, and long-snappers, but the totality of special teams includes lots of players who play other positions on offense and defense—wide receivers and running backs frequently return kicks, linebackers and defensive backs play on the coverage teams, and linemen set the field for place-kicking attempts.

All told, special teams units are typically on the field for about 20 percent of the plays in a football game. There are different personnel packages that specialize in either punts/kickoffs/punt returns, field goals/extra point attempts, kickoff returns, or blocking field goal/extra point attempts by opponents.

Names you’ll be hearing a lot:

Lester Coleman, Virginia’s punter. Coleman led the conference with 23 punts of 50 yards or more and was named to the Ray Guy Trophy watch list for 2018. The award is given to the top collegiate punter in the country every year and Coleman might have a shot at it depending how his final season punting for Virginia goes.

Joe Reed, kick return specialist. The receiver and top-notch kick returner was No. 1 in the ACC and No. 8 in the nation with 29.7 yards per kick return last season when he set the UVA single-season record with two kick returns for touchdowns (No. 1 in the ACC, No. 5 in the nation). Reed was responsible for team’s singular touchdown in the Military Bowl with his 98-yard return for a touchdown to open the game.

Tavares Kelly, kick returner. One of five true freshmen to earn a number so far, Kelly has reportedly cemented his spot as the fastest guy on the UVA roster. Kelly was a return dynamo in high school, with quick-twitch agility to go along with his startling speed. Using Kelly as the lead return man—along with fellow freshman Billy Kemp—could be an important part of keeping the offense on track, since Reed is likely to be one of the top outside receiving threats in 2018.

A.J. Mejia, the Cavaliers’ place-kicker. The sophomore returns after starting his freshman season, but the team is hoping from more from Mejia going into his second year. As a freshman Mejia’s longest field goal was just 38 yards, he missed all four of his 2017 attempts at a FG from 40 or more yards. Freshman Hunter Pearson will also compete for the starting spot as someone who could potentially offer more consistency and distance for Virginia.

Brian Delaney, kick-off specialist. Delaney played in every game as a true freshman in 2017 and kicked 56 of the Hoos’ 58 total kickoffs. Delaney is the third of three specialists to have a jersey number so far this season, together with Mejia and Coleman. Improving on his 35.7% touchback percentage will help bolster UVA’s kickoff defense.

People tend to forget about special teams. Sure, you watch the opening kickoff or cheer when a field goal is made, but the significance of these plays on the outcome of a game or the success of a team is often overlooked. So why are we spending time explaining this all to you? Because special teams can rack up serious points if they’re good, and they can make huge plays happen for the rest of your team. Think of how many extra points your favorite team has scored with field goals, or how many touchdowns are the result of good starting positioning on the field after an impressive return run—you can thank special teams for those!

TL;DR (too long, didn’t read):

Head coach Bronco Mendenhall brought in special teams coordinator Ricky Brumfield to step things up on special teams. The team’s punters, kickers, and returners all play a crucial role in a team’s success. Their goal: extra points, good set up for your offense, good defense against opponent’s returns. Look for Joe Reed, Lester Coleman, and whoever wins the starting slot at kicker to make improvements off of last season under Brumfield. Moral of the story: don’t discount special teams, and do hope to see improvements in this area this season.