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2018 Virginia Cavaliers Football Position Previews: Special Teams

A lot of potential areas of improvement from last year here.

NCAA Football: Virginia at Miami Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports
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In thinking back to the 2017 team, the Virginia Cavaliers’ special teams were not particularly special at all. Yes, there were bright spots. OK, one bright spot—the Cavalier’s kick return unit ranked third nationally, with just under 27 yards per return. Most of that is Joe Reed, who was eighth in the country at just under 30 yards per return. He was one of just 16 players in FBS who had more than 1 KR TD. Much of that was simply individual brilliance, because none of the other kick returns did much with their opportunities.

Apart from kick returns, Virginia’s special teams were largely a disaster. Here are the national rankings for the major pieces of special teams:

  • Kick Return: 3rd
  • Punt Return: 113th
  • Kick Return Defense: 116th
  • Punt Return Defense: 117th
  • Net Punting: 109th

(In case you’re wondering, Punt Return Defense is yards per return, which does not take into account the length of the punt.)

This, of course, isn’t all there is for special teams. The Hoos blocked two punts and allowed three blocked punts. A.J. Mejia made 8 of 12 FGs, which would rank 83rd nationally if there were enough to qualify (NCAA requires 1 FGA per game to qualify).

Based on S&P+, all told, Virginia Cavaliers football ranked 96th nationally in special teams. In 2016, they were 89th and in 2015, they were 57th.

So, overall not a good job by the special teams. Maybe that’s why Bronco Mendenhall hired a full-time special teams coordinator. Ricky Brumfield has been a special teams coordinator since 2001 with five stops prior to Virginia. This is the first time he’s been solely a special team’s coordinator. He’s previously also coached TEs, safeties, WRs and CBs.

UTSA was 23rd nationally in special teams, by S&P+. At Brumfield’s previous stop (Western Kentucky), his teams were 43rd (2016) and 11th (2015). It wouldn’t take much to improve the special teams, but Brumfield seems like he could have a major impact.

The Starters

Special Teams are unlike the other units, because there are several completely separate 11-man units. We’re not going to go into too much detail about all of these units. We’ll focus on the specialists (kickers and returners) and provide some thoughts on coverage guys and kick blockers.

At kicker, the returning A.J. Mejia has the lead at the position. As mentioned, he was 8 of 12, which isn’t too bad. But he was actually a perfect 8 of 8 from inside 40 yards, but 0 for 4 from outside 40 yards. That’s actually better. It means accuracy isn’t an issue, but leg strength is. It’s easy to strengthen a legs, but increasing accuracy is much tougher.

Punter is even better. Despite the poor team showing in net punting, Lester Coleman was 24th nationally in punt average. Certainly seems like it wasn’t his fault, unless maybe he’s outkicking his cover guys. There may be a place for Brumfield to work to ensure that the punter and the punt cover guys are all on the same page. Maybe Coleman can try more directional punting, to help avoid returns.

Brian Delaney will be handling kickoffs again. He had 20 touchbacks out of 56 kicks, which isn’t great. Considering the average kickoff return against Virginia was almost 25 yards, more touchbacks would be preferable. Hopefully, that’s something he can work on with Brumfield.

Those are easy ones, because there are returning starters who performed admirably last year. The same is, of course, true at kick returner. Bet the farm on Joe Reed being back to return kicks against Richmond. No reason to mess with what’s working. Next to him, there are a few options. It’s a good opportunity to get the ball into the hands of some of the younger RBs. We might see Lamont Atkins or Chris Sharp back there. Another option is walk-on WR Chuck Davis, who is among the faster players on the team.

Daniel Hamm was the primary punt returner last year, but he’s moved on. There are a number of options to take his spot. One is Davis, but the most interesting and exciting option is WR Tavares Kelly. Kelly, you may have heard, has world class speed. There’s a lot more to returning punts than just speed. Obviously, being able to catch the ball helps. But even more important than that is making the correct decision on whether to field the ball or not. A bad decision can lead to a loss of field position or a turnover. Hamm averaged just 4.5 yards per return, but he also didn’t make mistakes at PR. Look for a number of guys to get a chance to return punts.

Olamide Zaccheaus is an option at either return position. He hasn’t returned a punt since 2015, but he returned 7 KOs last year, at just over 20 yards per return. His value to the offense might be too great to use him as a returner, except in situations where we badly need a big play.

That’s really it for the so-called “specialists.” But, again, there are other pieces. The gunners, for example, in punt coverage. It’s been a while since UVA was any good at punt coverage. But, with so much depth at DB and LB, there should be talented guys available for special teams. Heskin Smith, for example, is a guy who was once seen as a possible punt returner. Could he be an option as a gunner? He’s quick and fast, and as a defender, he’s already getting practice making tackles. Getting Smith on the field would help him be more ready when he’s needed on defense.

The same could be said for DB Donovan Rolle and LBs Robert Snyder and Dre Bryant. There’s also some upperclassmen who should see time on special teams. This includes C.J. Stalker, Gladimir Paul and Myles Robinson.

For the punt rushers, the Hoos certainly have some options. Both Charles Snowden and Elliott Brown blocked punts last year. Both are tall and quick, which gives them an advantage in those situations. The long arms help get extension towards where the ball is going to be.

For the FG block unit, there’s a ton of height on the lines. Again, Snowden and Brown are tall and quick enough to potentially get past the line. But there’s also options at the line. Ryan Swoboda is 6’10” and Ben Knutson is 6’9”. With those two in the middle, sticking their big paws up in the air, there’s a good potential to block a kick.

The Backups

Backup kickers isn’t something you really worry about. NFL teams, for example, do not carry extra kickers. But college teams do. Mostly because they are grooming the “next” kicker.

In Virginia’s case, the “next” kicker might also be the “current” kicker. Hunter Pearson is a scholarship kicker, which generally means he’s pretty good. Mejia still has a leg up (no pun intended) on Pearson because of his experience. But Pearson undoubtedly has a stronger leg. We may see Mejia used for shorter kicks and Pearson used for longer ones. Pearson’s long in HS was 47 yards. Mejia is just a sophomore, so the battle for the job will last beyond this year and could last a couple more years.

The situation at punter is less fluid. Coleman proved last year that he’s a capable punter, so he’s not likely to lose the job. Delaney is considered a punting prospect and he’s got a big leg. But he doesn’t seem likely to take Coleman’s job this year. Delaney will be the punter next year, as Coleman is a senior.

At KR, the backups are really the same as the starters next to Reed. If it’s determined that Reed’s value to the offense is too important, then he may not return kicks as often. In that case, the guys mentioned above (Atkins, Sharp, Zaccheaus) will get options. A few of the true freshman WRs may get a chance. This includes Wooby Theork-Youmans, Billy Kemp and Ugo Obasi, along with previously mentioned Kelly.

The skillset for PR is slightly different from KR. It generally requires more change-of-direction ability and lateral quickness to avoid the oncoming rushers. KR mostly just involves vision and pure speed. A guy like Kelly who has both speed and quickness is a candidate for both. Same with Zaccheaus. But a bigger guy like Obasi probably isn’t a candidate to return punts.

Chances are, we’ll see Kelly in one or both positions at some point this year. That’ll be fun for Virginia fans. And scary for opposing teams.