UVa Vs. Virginia Tech Scouting Report: Special Teams

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Eddie Royal

For every game, The Sabre provides a special teams scouting report on the opponent. Finishing the regular season up with Virginia Tech is certainly fitting when it comes to the feature. After all VT is known for its special teams and the style of play has become know as “BeamerBall” because coach Frank Beamer has emphasized that phase of the game throughout his tenure.

Just how much emphasis does it get? Since Beamer took over in 1987, the Hokies have scored 40 touchdowns on special teams, an average of more than 2 per year. Those 40 TDs break down to 15 on blocked punts, 15 on punt returns, 5 on kickoff returns, 4 on blocked field goals, and 1 on a fumble recovery. Throw in defensive scores and Virginia Tech leads the ACC in non-offensive touchdowns over the last 15 years with 97, which bests second-standing Miami by a dozen. VT has had at least four non-offensive TDs in 13 of those 15 years.

That’s not all. Under Beamer, the Hokies have blocked 114 kicks in 251 games – that’s a block every 2.2 games. The breakdown: 58 punts, 35 field goals, amd 21 PATs. Virginia Tech was the top team in Division I-A during the 1990s with 63 blocked kicks in the decade. With that said, 2007 has not been a banner year for blocks. VT only has one blocked kick of any kind this season.

In other words, “BeamerBall” can change the game and most of the time it changes in the Hokies’ favor. Need proof? Since 1993, Virginia Tech is 64-8 in games where it scores at least one touchdown on either defense or special teams.

Statistics

  • Virginia Tech has returned at least one kickoff and one punt for a touchdown this season. Since 1999, VT leads the nation in return touchdowns with 64.
  • Virginia Tech has not allowed a kickoff return for touchdown since 1993 when Jeyson Wilson did it for Syracuse.
  • Virginia Tech has not allowed a punt return for touchdown since 2005 when Willie Reid did it for Florida State.
  • Virginia Tech has not had a field goal, PAT, or punt blocked this season.
  • Punter Brent Bowden is Virginia Tech’s first regular starting punter to be right-footed since 1996.

Coach Groh Says …

“This will be an awesome challenge for us. This is certainly one of the finest teams to come into Scott Stadium in quite some time. They’re tremendously impressive in all areas. The special teams, as usual and as is backed up historically, is a unit unto itself. They not only play special teams, they score and win the game themselves. Eddie Royal is the all-time leading punt return in the history of the ACC – it clearly points out the necessity of our having a spectacular day in terms of punting the ball and coverage if we’re to avoid a mishap in that area.”

Who’s That?

#4 Eddie Royal , PR/KR, 5-10/180, Senior, 1,284 career punt return yards: Royal has the potential to change games as a punt returner. After all, he is the ACC’s all-time leader in punt return yards after passing Maryland’s Steve Suter (1,271 yards) last week against Miami. This season, Royal averages 15.8 yards per return with two return touchdowns on the season. At Clemson, he broke one for an 82-yard TD run. In ACC games only, Royal averages 16.2 yards per return to lead the league; NCSU’s Darrell Blackman is behind by 4.0 ypr. Royal has also returned 7 kickoffs this season and he averages 21.3 yards per return in that category.

#2 Josh Morgan , KR, 6-1/220, Senior, 12 kick returns, 205 yards, 17.1 per return: Morgan leads the Hokies with 12 kick returns on the season. To date, he is the “kick away” option alongside players like Royal and Victor Harris because he averages a much less threatening 17.1 yards per return. As he has shown as a receiver, however, Morgan has good size and athleticism so the coverage unit still needs to be ready to bring down the senior.

#92 Jud Dunlevy, PK, 5-9/179, Jr., 86 points scored, 35 of 37 PATs, 17 of 20 field goals: In his first year as the starter, Dunlevy has handled the job well. Last week against Miami for instance, he made kicks of 40 and 44 yards. Earlier this season, he made a 52-yarder against UNC. Dunlevy has missed three kicks this season, but they all have been from long range: 52 yards against FSU, 42 yards against Duke, and 41 yards against Georgia Tech.

# 97 Brent Bowden , P, 6-3/213, Sophomore, 72 punts, 42.1 yards per punt, 18 forced fair catches, 9 touchbacks: Bowden has handled all but one punt for the Hokies this season (Dunlevy punted once for 21 yards). Bowden’s 42.1 yards average ranks fifth in the ACC. Interestingly, the average improves to 42.4 in ACC games only, but the rank falls to seventh. On the season, Bowden has 14 kicks of more than 50 yards.

A Closer Look

Kickoff coverage: Jud Dunlevy has been handling the kickoff duties as of late after Jared Develli experienced hernia injury complications. Develli could be used in an emergency, but Dunlevy will likely be the specialist throughout. There’s a kickoff distance trade-off for the Hokies with the change as Dunlevy has just three touchbacks on 27 kicks – Develli had 12 on 38 kicks prior to his injury issues. It probably doesn’t matter who kicks off, though. Virginia Tech ranks No. 1 in the ACC in kickoff coverage defense, netting 44.9 yards per kickoff (based on that average, teams average a starting field position of the 25-yard line). That’s bad news for the Cavaliers, who have struggled at times in the return game. In ACC games, UVa ranks sixth in returns with 20.1 yards per return. One VT name to watch is Stephan Virgil , who leads the team in kickoff tackles.

Punt coverage: One impressive thing about the Hokies is that they can come after kicks and get blocks, but they’re still solid in coverage despite being so aggressive. In ACC games, VT ranks sixth in the league with 35.4 net yards per punt. Bowden and Tech excel at flipping field position – on 72 punts, the team has forced 18 fair catches and downed the ball 26 times inside the 20 (that’s 36% of the time). Bart McMillin is another name to remember. He’s tied for the team lead for tackles on punt coverage with three as the snapper. Josh Zidenberg ‘s punt-block success has come up the middle when lining up over or near the snapper. A bad snap or too quick of a downfield release by McMillin, in his first year as the starter, could create an opening for Zidenberg.

Kickoff returns: This is a surprising category for a team known for special teams. In ACC games, the Hokies rank 11th in the league in kickoff returns with an average of 17.5 yards per return. Of course, they get limited chances with a defense that doesn’t allow points and therefore doesn’t allow kickoffs – 23 is the lowest number of returns in ACC games. Still, the 17.5 yards per return is a poor statistic, particularly when you consider that Macho Harris had a 100-yard TD return against Clemson to bump up the average. On the other 22 returns, the Hokies have averaged just 13.7 yards per return. That’s an important stat because if the Hoos can score, even if it is just field goals, instead of punting or turning the ball over, they likely can put VT’s offense in poor starting position. Of note, UVa ranks No. 2 in ACC games with 44.0 net yards per kickoff, second in the league to only Virginia Tech.

Punt returns: The story here is Eddie Royal . As you can tell from anywhere in this report, Royal is a dangerous game-changer in the punt return category. He’s a threat to break a big one or he will just flip the field position with a steady effort. Either way, the ACC’s all-time leader is affecting the flow of the game. Ryan Weigand has slowly gotten better at hanging his punts higher in the air to reduce return risks. Still, Weigand has forced just six fair catches on 44 punts this season (7.3% of the time), meaning Royal will likely get his chances. That means UVa’s coverage will need to be sure with its tackles. Virgil is one to watch here too – he blocked a punt against Duke this season.

Plays That Could Hurt Virginia

Blocks. Virginia has had two punts blocked this season and Virginia Tech is widely known for its punt-blocking ability. One of the key concerns with UVa punter Ryan Weigand is the speed of his kicks – sometimes the time elapsed between snap and punt is too long. In other words, the Hoos need to be on top of their game this week when it comes to punting the football. VT is going to come after some kicks. How Virginia handles it could be a key storyline in the game.

Returns. One of the most overlooked aspects of “BeamerBall” is the return game. Virginia Tech has consistently been solid in the return game with players like Eddie Royal always threatening to break one long. Clemson witnessed first-hand how the Hokies can break a game open with the return game. Virginia doesn’t want a similar fate this weekend.

Virginia’s Special Teams Keys

  • No breakdowns. Missed assignments led to blocked punts earlier this season. Bobbled fielding attempts created turnovers in the early part of the season. Turnovers on special teams were somewhat common through the Connecticut game. Any relapse in any area this week could cost you the game. No breakdowns – it’s the No. 1 key to have a chance against Virginia Tech. The Hokies will thrive on any mistakes. Don’t let that happen.
  • Contain Eddie Royal . The ACC’s all-time leading punt returner can score on returns, but the bigger concern this week may be his ability to flip field position. Royal averages 16.2 yards per punt return in ACC play. With two defenses expected to exchange blows Saturday, how much field they have to defend could be a determing factor in the outcome.
  • Make something happen. Josh Zidenberg blocked a punt against Miami. Vic Hall had a big return against Duke out of a twin safeties look. Hall scored a touchdown on a fake against Pitt. Chris Long blocked a kick against Middle Tennessee State. If Virginia can make something happen against Virginia Tech, a team that takes great pride in special teams play, it could go a long way with the intangibles like momentum, mental confidence, and crowd noise.

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