When Virginia football practice begins in late July, focus naturally will drift to Kurt Benkert’s play and Lindell Stone’s readiness at quarterback, the offensive line and the depth there, players like Doni Dowling and Andrew Brown returning from injuries during the spring, and more. A little less fervor will be dedicated to kickers and special teams, but that aspect remains a major storyline for the Hoos as the 2017 season approaches.
The Cavaliers, after all, must replace all their kicking specialists from a year ago. Kickers Alex Furbank and Sam Hayward are no longer on the roster after attempting every field goal last fall (that wasn’t many but more on that below). Kickoff specialist Dylan Sims and punter Nicholas Conte finished their eligibility. No other player on the roster recorded any kicking stats a year ago.
The toughest to replace in that group will be Conte, who put together a strong senior season while the overall team struggled to a 2-10 finish. Conte averaged 44.3 yards per punt on 74 kicks. That average landed him at No. 15 nationally and he logged more punts than anyone in the top 30. He also forced 21 fair catches and landed nine punts inside the 10-yard line. That earned first-team All-ACC honors, the first Cavalier since Will Brice in 1996 to receive that distinction.
Conte ended his Virginia career No. 1 all-time in program history and No. 3 in ACC history with a 44.45 yards per punt average.
The leading candidate to take over the punting duties is Lester Coleman, a redshirt junior out of Woodberry Forest. At 6’5” and 225 pounds, he’s a tall and athletic option that put together a good spring. He averaged 36.0 yards per punt as a senior at WF where he pinned 12 of 20 punts inside the 20-yard line. Coleman’s brother James began his career at UVA but transferred to Western Michigan where he attempted a team-leading 28 punts with a 40.29 average.
Coleman’s chief competition could be Nash Griffin, a redshirt freshman that spent the spring as the team’s lone player attempting field goals in most practices. Griffin handled both jobs at Lawrence Central High School in Indianapolis where he was all-state at both positions in 2014 and 2015. He placed 26 of 50 punts inside the 20 as a senior.
Griffin will be in competition at kicker too, however, and that may be one of the most important pieces of the puzzle for Bronco Mendenhall’s second season at Virginia.
In 2016, the Hoos attempted only 10 field goals, which tied for the second fewest throughout the Football Bowl Subdivision. Only UTEP attempted fewer (7). The Cavaliers didn’t have much success on those limited attempts either. They tied for 125th nationally with five made fields goals, landing ahead of only Marshall (4) and Duke (3). The 50% conversion rate beat out only Central Michigan, Missouri, Marshall, and Duke. Furbank made 1 of 2 attempts, while Hayward hit 4 of 8. The longest make of the season came from 36 yards.
Griffin had a perfect junior year in high school where he made all 14 kicks. He’ll have plenty of competition during the preseason as Mendenhall and company try to establish a more sound kicking game than 2016. Among the players that could get a look is Andrew King, who returns to the program after sitting out last season for unspecified reasons. He made a 55-yard field goal in high school, but could be the best option to fill into Sims’ role on kickoffs rather than field goals. AJ Mejia, a freshman walk-on from Paul VI, could be discussed there as well; like many on the roster, he did double duty at kicker and punter in high school.
True freshman Brian Delaney, who like Griffin handled both jobs in high school while playing at Westfield High in Chantilly, figures to be the main competitor for the placekicking duties. He made 12 field goals and 60 extra points as as senior as well as 11 field goals a junior. His senior year included a 42-yard game-winning kick against Robinson. He comes to UVA rated as a five-star kicker by Kohl’s Kicking and the No. 2 kicker in his class by ESPN.com. He’s a possibility at kickoff specialist too as 59 of 81 kickoffs went for touchbacks during his 2015 high school season.
Of course, Delaney could be the leading competitor for Coleman at punter as well. Kohl’s Kicking ranked him as the No. 1 punter in the country among his class, noting that he “drives the ball farther than anyone in the 2017 class” and that he’s consistent with his punting. He averaged 45 yards per punt as a junior and 46 as a senior.
Would UVA put punting and kicking on Delaney’s plate as a true freshman? Likely not. Considering Coleman looked consistent with punting duties this spring, it’s possible that a four-way competition for kicker unfolds in training camp between Griffin, King, Mejia, and Delaney. Perhaps Kohl’s Kicking could check in for that? At least three of the players have worked with that camp in the past with Griffin and Delaney each receiving 5-star ratings (Griffin as a punter and Delaney as both).
Regardless of how the kicking duties all pan out, one conclusion is clear. Mendenhall identified the specialists’ inconsistency and replacement needs for the program so he moved to create competition and depth at those spots. If that can follow Conte’s successful path in punting and establish a stronger performance in the kicking game, it could help reverse the forturnes of last season’s disappointing record.