In recent years, Virginia’s special teams have been outstanding or awful, depending on the unit. The kicking and return games have excelled for the most part, while the punting has been positively putrid. Will that change this season? Connor Hughes and the return men figure to remain team strengths, but what about punter? That situation should get better, if only because it can’t get much worse.
1) Connor Hughes (Sr., 5-10, 172)
2) Kurt Smith (Sr., 6-0, 180)
Hughes has the leg, the mechanics and the confidence of a great kicker. He has range beyond 50 yards, he always hits the sweet spot and he isn’t fazed by pressure. No wonder he is considered a strong candidate for the Lou Groza Award and seems likely to enjoy a long NFL career. Hughes has made 45 of 55 field-goal attempts and probably will become UVa’s all-time leading scorer – that is, if Wali Lundy doesn’t beat him to it. (Hughes has 233 points and Lundy 246, chasing Gene Mayer’s mark of 293.) Hughes missed 10 kicks last year, including three extra points, but that was partly due to a new snapper and holder. With Tyrus Gardner and John Phillips back in those roles, expect Hughes to be nearly automatic once again.
Smith lost his job as UVa’s place-kicker three years ago, but he has thrived as a kickoff specialist. Of his 224 kickoffs, 136 have reached the end zone and 81 have resulted in touchbacks.
1) Michael Johnson (Jr., 5-9, 192)
2) Tony Franklin (Jr., 5-10, 185)
The Cavaliers lost their top kickoff returner (Marquis Weeks) and punt returner (Alvin Pearman), but there is no shortage of qualified candidates to replace them. Johnson, Franklin, Theirrien Davis , Emmanuel Byers , Kevin Ogletree and Mike Brown, among others, have practiced returning kicks during training camp. All are fast and explosive.
For now, Johnson will fill both roles. The fastest player on the team, he may not see much action at tailback, especially if Wali Lundy stays healthy. But Johnson has to touch the ball, somehow, some way, and returning kickoffs and punts gets him in the open field and allows him to make plays. If he doesn’t break one or two for touchdowns, I’ll be surprised, but he must avoid fumbles.
“He’s going to get his hands on it,” Groh said. “The question is whether the ball will stay in his hands.”
Franklin also will be back on kickoffs, a role in which he excelled two years ago when he averaged 25.8 yards per return. The Cavs put a big emphasis on returns and have a variety of blocking schemes designed to open up lanes. They were second in the country in kickoff return average a year ago and should be near the top again this season.
The punt coverage unit broke down twice against Miami last season. Otherwise, Virginia’s coverage teams were as solid as ever. Several key members of those units are gone, including Weeks, Pearman, Brandon Isaiah and Isaiah Ekejuiba. But the Cavs welcome back two special teams standouts who redshirted last season, Ottowa Anderson and Bryan White. They also have a whole slew of what Groh calls “run-and-hit guys” who should excel as cover men. That group includes Mark Miller, Jermaine Dias , Nate Lyles , Jamaal Jackson and Jon Copper. Some of the freshmen, such as Olu Hall , also may be able to make a difference here.
To say Tom Hagan and Sean Johnson struggled would be an understatement, but we’ll be kind and leave it at that. Virginia has been among the nation’s worst punting teams over the past three years, a huge dropoff from its historical success with the likes of Russ Henderson, Ed Garno, Will Brice and Mike Abrams. At this point, the Cavs and their fans don’t expect an All-ACC punter. A serviceable one will do.
Gould and Weigand both seem to fit that description. Gould took over punting duties for the final three games last season, averaging 38.6 yards on 18 kicks. Weigand is a junior-college transfer who averaged 40.3 yards at Pasadena City College.
Both have been inconsistent during training camp, kicking some high and far, some low and short, according to Groh. Weigand says he has had to speed up his “get-off time,” so he has made adjustments to his technique. Gould has a strong leg and may end up moving to kicker if Weigand beats him out. Each may get an opportunity in the opener – that is, if UVa punts twice against Western Michigan – before Groh names a starter. The odd man out could redshirt.
The Last Word
Mark D’Onofrio certainly fits the mold of a special teams coach – loud, passionate and a little crazy – and he seems determined to make this a major strength for the Cavaliers. Coach Groh has stressed special teams throughout his time at UVa, knowing that phase of the game can dramatically impact a program’s fortunes. I’d expect Virginia’s special teams to be very good this year, especially if Hughes and Johnson perform as they’re capable. But I don’t think it will be great until the ‘Hoos prove they can punt and block kicks more effectively.
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