50 Virginia Football Thoughts Before Kickoff: Special Teams Headlines

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Senior Joe Reed has shown tremendous consistency and big-play potential as a kick returner in his first three seasons in the Virginia football program.

The primary focus is always on offense and defense, but special teams certainly can make or break a team’s chances of winning. Virginia football, which is entering its second season with Ricky Brumfield as the team’s Special Teams Coordinator, has some question marks on special teams, such as who will replace starting punter Lester Coleman as well as if the kickoff return coverage unit will improve significantly from last season’s inconsistent effort.

UVA special teams is the focus of this latest “50 Thoughts” feature.

25 – Special Teams Headlines

Kickoff Return Coverage Needs Improvement

From a kicking standpoint, kickoffs were in good hands in 2018 under Brian Delaney, who booted 47 touchbacks in 72 tries. The junior has been the primary kickoff kicker for two straight seasons now, and while it wouldn’t surprise to see redshirt freshman Hunter Pearson or true freshman Justin Duenkel handle the duties this season to enable Delaney the chance to focus on field goals and possibly punting, Delaney’s consistency last season is nice to fall back on.

Virginia’s kickoff coverage unit, however, was consistently inconsistent according to Brumfield. In Jeff White’s August 10 Training Camp Notebook, Brumfield called last year’s kickoff return coverage “sporadic.”

Of all of Virginia’s special teams units, kickoff return coverage is high on the list of concerns heading into 2019. UVA allowed 599 yards in 24 kickoff returns, an average 24.96 yards per kickoff return, ranking near the bottom of FBS programs at no. 121 of 129. In Bronco Mendenhall’s first two seasons, the Hoos allowed 26.03 yards per kick return in 2016 and 24.46 yards per kick return in 2017. Virginia surrendered one kickoff return for a touchdown in 2018. It was an important one, though, coming in the 30-27 overtime loss at Georgia Tech in the second-to-last game of the season.

Close Competition For Starting Punter Role

Lester Coleman was rock-solid as Virginia’s punter the past two seasons. He performed especially well in 2017, averaging 43.7 yards per punt in 75 tries. Coleman placed 29 punts inside the opponents 20 that season on his way to earning All-ACC Second Team honors.

Coleman wasn’t as consistent last season, but he was still very good, averaging 41.8 yards per punt in 51 attempts and pinning the opponent inside its own 20 on 20 occasions. The 2018 Campbell Trophy semifinalist ranks third in Virginia history with a 42.9 yard-per-punt average.

Coleman’s collegiate career is finished, leaving Virginia with a punter to replace. Delaney and redshirt junior Nash Griffin are battling it out. After spring football, Delaney, who was Kohl’s Kicking’s no. 1-rated punter in the class of 2017, held the edge over Griffin, an Indianapolis native who held preferred walk-on offers from Michigan and Northwestern before opting for the Cavaliers. Griffin, though, has had an outstanding offseason as evidenced by his “Dirty Dozen” accomplishment for strength and conditioning as well as the fact that he was one of 36 players to take part in the first round of jersey selection. Even Delaney, who handled kickoffs and field goals last season, didn’t get to pick his jersey until the second round. Griffin’s primary role last season was as the holder on field goals/extra points.

Judging from the preseason competition, there is reason to be optimistic that Virginia is in good hands at punter whoever wins out. How about the rest of the punt unit?

Punt return coverage was good last season. The Hoos ranked seventh in the nation in punt return defense, allowing just 3.21 yards per return in 14 tries. There was one major slip-up in 2018, though, and that was allowing a blocked punt for a touchdown against Virginia Tech. The score lifted the Hokies to a 14-0 lead. UVA of course rallied before letting a golden opportunity to win slip away with a 3-point overtime loss. Eliminating blocked punts is a must any season.

Close Competition at Snapper, Too

Joe Spaziani was extremely consistent as Virginia’s long snapper the past two-plus seasons. He now has now has a job as a snapper with the Canadian Football League’s Toronto Argonauts. Virginia has two players vying to replace Spaziani in redshirt freshman Lee Dudley and true freshman Enzo Anthony. Both were heralded snapper prospects out of high school, but one or both will need to mature fast to solidify the snapping duties for the Cavaliers in 2019.

Is Delaney The Answer On Field Goals?

Yes. I think so. Hopefully. Maybe?

My answer to the field goal question has less to do with Delaney and more to do with thinking back to the first two-plus seasons of the Mendenhall era, when field goal kicking was tenuous. It was simply abysmal in 2016, when Virginia’s field goal kickers made just 5-of-10 attempts. It was better in 2017 as then-true freshman walk-on A.J. Mejia made 8-of-12 field goals. However, Mejia missed three of his final six attempts of the season, including one each in the regular season finale against Virginia Tech and the Military Bowl game against Navy, and didn’t make anything 40 yards and over.

Delaney made 12-of-16 field goals in nine games as Virginia football’s field goal kicker in 2018. Can he carry his quality play into 2019 and definitively put an end to the placekicking woes that plagued UVA in Coach Mendenhall’s first two-plus seasons?

Mejia assumed the starting role last season, beating out true freshman scholarship player Hunter Pearson. He missed three of his first four attempts, however, and after four games the position had open competition. Delaney won the competition during the bye week, which came after a week four loss to NC State, and responded by booting three field goals in a 16-13 win over Miami. Though he had some trouble with kicking from the right hash, Delaney finished 2018 making 12-of-16 field goals with a long of 46 yards. He enters 2019 as the starter, though it’s worth noting that true freshman walk-on Justin Duenkel has earned some positive buzz in practice and just earned a jersey number as well.

Given how shaky the field goal situation was in Mendenhall’s first two seasons, you couldn’t blame Virginia fans if they are cautious in their optimism. But despite my earlier sentiments, I do expect Delaney, who as Kris Wright notes could handle all three kicking duties, to continue to succeed in the starting role he earned – and held – last season.

Joe Reed A Strength of Virginia’s Special Teams Unit

Joe Reed broke through as a wide receiver last season and is poised to take another step forward production-wise at the position this season with Olamide Zaccheaus no longer in the program. The senior’s offense will obviously be crucial to UVA’s hopes in 2019, but let’s not forget about his ability as a kick returner, something he has consistently provided throughout his collegiate career.

Reed enters his final year in Charlottesville as UVA’s career kick return yardage leader with 2,246 yards. He also is the all-time school leader in kick returns for touchdowns with three. As a freshman in 2016 he averaged 25.1 yards per return, good for third in the ACC and 25th in the country. He averaged 29.7 yards per return as a sophomore – no. 8 nationally and tops in the ACC – and 27.2 yards per return last season, good for no. 9 nationally and no. 2 in the ACC. Reed returned two kickoffs for touchdowns in 2017. He added another last season, when he earned All-ACC Third Team honors as a specialist.

Virginia gets to enjoy Reed’s consistent production as a kick returner one last season. The biggest question facing the Cavalier kickoff return unit may be who will line up beside return as a returner. It’s a good bet most teams will choose to kick away from Reed, providing an opportunity for whoever is beside him.

Quality Candidates at Punt Returner

While Reed’s production at kick return is outstanding, Virginia’s punt return production was below average in 2018. Cavalier punt returners averaged only 6.86 yards per return in 36 tries, ranking no. 87 in the nation in the category. There are some promising options heading into 2019, though.

The most dynamic of the group is sophomore Tavares Kelly Jr., who had 13 returns for 143 yards (11 yards per return) with a long of 43 as a true freshman last season. Catching and decision-making are paramount. If Kelly Jr. is consistent in both of those areas, he has the speed and quickness to be able to return any punt for a touchdown.

Sophomore Billy Kemp IV is also a promising prospect based on what he showed against South Carolina in the Belk Bowl. Returning punts for the first time in his young career, Kemp IV had three returns for 31 yards against the Gamecocks. His performance included a long of 11 yards. What I liked about Kemp IV’s performance was his fearlessness. South Carolina’s punter boomed some high ones, but the UVA true freshman made the tough catches.

50 Virginia Football Thoughts Before Kickoff
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