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Special teams: An area of strength for Virginia football in 2023

The ‘Hoos return an All-ACC punter and should have a strong tag team at kicker

NCAA Football: Virginia at Syracuse Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

Special teams is a relative strength for the Virginia Cavaliers, as they should have one of the best kicker and punter rooms in the ACC. Daniel Sparks has a big leg and is coming off an All-ACC campaign, while the tag team of Will Bettridge and Matt Ganyard should provide solid kicker production. The returners also offer a good mix of experience from guys like Ethan Davies and big-play potential from Demick Starling and Suderian Harrison.


Daniel Sparks returns as UVA’s punter after an effective 2022 season where he graded out as PFF’s 10th-best collegiate punter and earned All-ACC honors. Sparks has a big leg: his 45.8 gross yards per punt ranked 10th in the NCAA and his mean punt hang time of 3.93 seconds was above the NCAA average.

However, Sparks deserves some blame as well as part of a punt team that was generally ineffective, as he frequently out-kicked his coverage. Despite high marks in gross punt yardage, his net yardage ranked below NCAA average. Virginia’s punt team allowed a shockingly high 49% of punts to be returned – sixth-most in the country – and yielded 13.8 yards per return, which came in at 13th most.

It’s hard to know how much of those struggles should be pinned on Sparks compared to his gunners and the punt team writ large. Sparks’s pin-deep punting could use some improvement, but his leg and consistency are high-level and he certainly deserved his preseason All-ACC selection.


Virginia will have an interesting situation at the kicker spot this season, as they’re one of the only schools in the country with two legitimately valuable kickers on the roster. For now, sophomore Will Bettridge will handle the place kicking duties while graduate student Matt Ganyard will take on kickoffs.

Will Bettridge was a feel-good story last season as a freshman kicker, as he absolutely had some highlights — most notably a 4-for-4 outing vs. Miami in an ugly 14-12 affair where Bettridge accounted for all of Virginia’s points. Bettridge had a nightmare game against Georgia Tech last season, where he missed kicks from 29 and 39 yards (making one from 28) as well as an extra point. Outside of that GT performance, though, he was incredibly solid for a freshman asked to step up in the middle of the season.

He’ll also be wearing no. 41 this season to honor D’Sean Perry, who he played with in high school. Suffice to say, he’ll have the support of the Wahoo fanbase.

Ganyard, for his part, might have one of the most interesting stories in college football. The 34-year-old graduate student and retired Marine will handle kickoff duties for the Cavaliers. Despite having never played football in his life (Ganyard played soccer in high school), the Class of 2011 undergraduate will finally get his shot at college football.

He’s not just a feel-good story, either. According to Ganyard, he went 9-for-9 at open tryouts for the team as an undergrad, so he’s got some place kicking ability. And on kickoffs, Ganyard reportedly has an absolute cannon of a leg according to observations from UVA open practices.

With rumors that Bettridge struggled a bit in camp, it’ll be interesting to see if Ganyard gets a shot to handle place kicking duties as well as kickoffs over the course of the season.

Holder & Long Snapper

Quarterback Jared Rayman will handle the holding duties for the second consecutive season, and former Boston College transfer Aidan Livingston will be the ‘Hoos long snapper for the second straight season. If you’re expecting more in-depth analysis of holders or long snappers, Streaking the Lawn is not where you should be looking.

Punt Returner

Ethan Davies won out over Suderian Harrison as the initial leader in the clubhouse at punt returner. Davies has experience and offers stability at the position, while the freshman Harrison might offer more big play potential.

While Davies will probably return the bulk of punts thanks solely to his experience and sure hands, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Harrison occasionally get a crack at the job if the Cavaliers need a big play or a spark to get going. He took a punt to the house in open practice.

Kick Returner

Demick Starling will once again return kicks for Virginia, as he emerged last year as a quality return man over the course of the season. His 21.9 yards per return were second-highest in the ACC.

It was a good camp for Starling overall, as he also earned a starting job on the outside at wide receiver. Keep an eye on him as a guy with potential for a breakout season.