After looking at the Wahoo quarterbacks and running backs earlier this week, we’re continuing our Virginia Cavaliers football position preview series today by evaluating UVA’s special teams units. While being a solid group altogether in 2021, there also wasn’t much that particularly stood out for UVA’s specialists last season. With an added emphasis on complementary football under Tony Elliott, that should change in 2022.
Kicking & Punting
Brendan Farrell, K/P
UVA’s kicker last season, Farrell took advantage of the opportunity to fill in for Justin Duenkel against Wake Forest last year and never looked back. On the season he was 11/13 on field goals and 34/34 on extra points while coming up clutch in a few different contests including big makes against Louisville and Miami. His season (and career long) came against the Hurricanes on a 43-yarder.
Now in his third season in Charlottesville, Farrell is taking on a number of different duties. In fall camp he’s been practicing at both punter and kicker and theoretically could fill punt, kick-off, and field goal/extra point duties for the Wahoos. Yet, that is unlikely with Tony Elliott commenting that UVA’s approach will likely be to split responsibilities among a few different players including Farrell, Will Bettridge, and Daniel Sparks.
When asked about Farrell in camp, Elliott mentioned how “he’s looked good so far. Gotten back into his grove punting the ball [as we’re] still having him do both.” Still though, the staff is hoping that “with the three of those guys (Farrell, Bettridge, Sparks) we can distribute some of that workload and let those guys maybe hone in more on one aspect of the kicking game.”
Going off those comments and others the former Clemson OC has made, the most likely spot for Farrell to fill seems like it may be as the man on kickoffs with the chance to do more.
Justin Duenkel, K
After opening 2021 as the starting place kicker, Duenkel missed time due to an injury which paved the way for Farrell to step up and seize the job. Now, heading into Duenkel’s senior season, an ACL injury has kept him out of spring and fall camp as he doesn’t seem likely to reclaim any significant role if and when he returns from injury. Granted, injuries clearly still can occur and things can change on a dime. But, for now, Duenkel looks like the odd man out on the kicking depth chart.
Will Bettridge, K
The new kid on the block, Will Bettridge is perhaps the most hyped up specialist ever to come to UVA. Rated as the best kicker in the 2022 class by Kornblue Kicking and third via 247Sports, he’s got the chops to make an early impact. Especially keeping in mind that kickers aren’t beholden to the same necessary physical development of young players at other positions, Bettridge could see primetime moments come his way early on.
Elliott has already heaped praise on the young leg, noting that “we call him ‘Little Walk-off Will.’ At first I didn’t know if I was going to use that nickname for him. But I tell you what it looks like he’s got pretty good nerves about him.” In fact, the head coach mentioned how the staff put “him in a situation at the end of practice, [with] running on the line and treating it like it’s the game on the line, 48-yard field goal, he didn’t know it was coming and he walked out there and he hit it.”
Such flattering words seem to indicate that Bettridge has a lead in the competition for the field goal/extra point kicking duties. Him and Farrell are two good options for that spot with the former bringing confidence and a big leg and the latter experience and big game know how. Whoever does lose that battle is likely to take over responsibilities on kick-offs.
Daniel Sparks, P
A 6’6” transfer from Minnesota, Sparks was brought in to fill the shoes of Jacob Finn. After starting his career at the University of Louisiana-Monroe and impressing in the Sun Belt Conference, he transferred to Minnesota early in 2021 but didn’t play last year. Now on Grounds, Sparks “has definitely increased the competition level at punter,” according to Tony Elliott as the Alabama native was the first name he mentioned when questioned about the various kickers and punters.
Sparks also has experience with kick-offs having done so 33 times for ULM with an average of 55.3 yards along with 30 punts for 44.6 yards including five placed inside the 20-yard line.
It’s hard to predict whether Sparks or Farrell will take over the punting position. If Elliott truly does want to split up those roles among different guys, using Sparks as the punter and Farrell as the emergency backup would make sense. Of course, early season games against beatable in-state opponents like Richmond and Old Dominion ought to give the ‘Hoos time to test out different options.
Returning returners (get it?!)
Billy Kemp IV, WR
As Virginia’s go-to punt returner over the last two seasons, Kemp IV should take that spot once again in 2022 after returning 16 for 95 yards in 2021. While under Mendenhall the ‘Hoos generally signaled for fair catches — Kemp IV had seven returns for 80 yards in the first two games of the season and then nine for 15 the rest of the way — with Elliott at the helm Kemp should take on more responsibility as a returner in 2022.
He also worked as one of the kick off returners last year with four returns for 82 yards, the best average on the team. Although with a few options among younger players with less impact on the offense as a whole, Kemp IV may be protected and kept off the kick return unit.
Mike Hollins, RB
The lead kick returner last season, one would expect Hollins to move away from that role this season as the coaching staff wants him to focus more directly on the minutiae of the running back position.
Perris Jones, RB
Another guy who returned a few kicks last season, Jones probably won’t be on kickoff return duty this season especially since he’s currently UVA’s top running back and will be needed elsewhere on the field.
Ronnie Walker Jr., RB
The Indiana transfer has missed most of the offseason due to a spring injury, but currently looks set to make a September return as he has started to participate in fall camp drils. While he didn’t return kicks last season, he could be used back there in case Jones and Hollins are protected as the team’s top two rushers.
#UVA RB Ronnie Walker in a green jersey and participating in drills pic.twitter.com/bV7Ylor47j— Jacquie Franciulli (@JacquieFran_) August 13, 2022
Devin Chandler, WR
The junior wide receiver returned four kicks last year for 85 yards including three for 73 against Notre Dame. He’s another body the ‘Hoos could throw back there assuming their more valuable offensive assets are too important to risk.
Ethan Davies, WR
The walk-on enters his sophomore year after not appearing in any games for the Wahoos last season. But he’s one of the fastest guys in the program and shouldn’t be counted out for a return here or there. He particularly impressed in the spring game with a pair of lengthy punt returns.
Xavier Brown, RB
The true freshman running back has reportedly shown flashes in fall camp and, if the RB room is too full for him to get carries this year, returning could be the perfect spot for him to fill as a playmaker in space.
Lee Dudley, LS
Now a fifth year senior, Dudley was Virginia’s long snapper on field goals and extra points in 2019 but proceeded to miss 2020 due to injury and then didn’t play in 2021 with other guys taking over his job. Now that Tucker Finkelston and Danny Caracciolo are gone, the Richmond native and Woodberry Forest graduate is in pole position to reclaim his spot.
Luke Byrne, LS
Byrne, a sophomore, could also fill in as depth at long snapper. Unlike Dudley and Livingston, he does lack some of the size and weight at 6’1” and 217 pounds. He played tight end, linebacker, and long snapper in high school but probably is third on the depth chart heading into the fall.
Aidan Livingston, LS
Likely Dudley’s biggest competition for snaps is Boston College transfer Aidan Livingston. Back as a freshman in 2019 Livingston did it all as the Eagles had him snapping on field goals, extra points, and punts. Since then his role has consistently diminished, working solely as the punt snapper in 2020 and then not playing in any games in 2021.