50 Virginia Football Thoughts Before Kickoff: The Kicking Game A Strength?

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Brian Delaney could wind up handling field goals, kickoffs and punts for Virginia football this season, but he’s not the only kicker that has impressed in fall camp.

Virginia football has enjoyed consistent quality punting in the first three seasons under head coach Bronco Mendenhall, with All-ACC first-teamer Nicholas Conte averaging 44.3 yards per punt in 74 tries in 2016, All-ACC second-teamer Lester Coleman averaging 43.7 yards per punt in 75 attempts in 2017, and Coleman averaging 41.8 yards per punt in 2018.

The Hoos have not been as fortunate in terms of field goal kicking and kickoffs, at least in Mendenhall’s first two seasons. In 2019, however, Virginia may finally have the consistency and production Coach Mendenhall has been searching for in all three areas.

8 – The Kicking Game A Strength?

The struggle was real for Virginia field goal kicking in 2016 as Cavalier placekickers made just 5-of-10 field goals with a long of 36 yards. Kickoffs weren’t much better as Virginia kickers booted just 19 touchbacks in 51 tries, good for only 37.3%.

Field goals improved in 2017 with true freshman walk-on A.J. Mejia, who was successful on 8-of-12 attempts; however, he missed all four attempts from 40 and over and was 3-6 in UVA’s final six games, missing a key field goal try against Virginia Tech in the regular season finale as well as an attempt versus Navy in the Military Bowl. True freshman scholarship kicker Brian Delaney handled the bulk of the kickoffs in 2017, booting 20 touchbacks in 56 attempts (35.7%) and sending two kickoff attempts out of bounds.

Delaney improved dramatically on kickoffs last season as a sophomore, tallying 47 touchbacks in 72 attempts (65.3%). He also proved to be the answer at placekicker. Mejia began the season as the starter but made only one of his four attempts. True freshman scholarship kicker Hunter Pearson was subbed into game four versus Louisville and made both field goal tries (both kicks were under 30 yards) and three extra points; however, Delaney won the competition during Virginia’s bye week (week 6) and held the job for the final eight games of the year. He made 12-of-16 field goals including the all three attempts of 40 yards or more, becoming the first UVA kicker to make a field goal over 40 yards in the Mendenhall era.

With Delaney leading the way, perhaps doing it all, Coach Mendenhall has high expectations at all three kicking positions in 2019.

“I would say the main progress is the depth we have of number of players kicking the ball and punting the ball and kicking off the ball,” Mendenhall said on his radio show on Tuesday (August 27). “I would say the quality and quantity is allowing competitive depth to be established, which usually increases performance. And so, not only are we more accurate, we’re doing so from different ranges and different places at a higher level. And we have more depth in case one player might be having an off day. I think maybe the biggest area of depth and growth that’s been a weakness to the point is the kicking game. I think the fans will see that in a positive way and a way that certainly shows upward mobility and growth.”

This past spring, Virginia began its open competition at punter as Coleman’s eligibility came to an end after the 2018 season. Delaney, who was rated by Kohl’s Kicking as the no. 1 punter in the nation in the class of 2017, was the best and most consistent in terms of field goals, kickoffs and punts coming out of spring football. As a result, he entered fall camp with the very real prospect of handling all three kicking duties this season. It is a responsibility the junior out of Chantilly (VA) would relish.

“When I came here, that was my goal,” Delaney said in this article by the Roanoke Times. “It was what I had done in high school. I knew what I was capable of and wanted to compete for all of it.”

Virginia football released its depth chart for the August 31 season opener at Pitt on Monday. Delaney holds starting roles on kickoffs and field goals. At punter, the depth chart reads Nash Griffin or Delaney. Griffin, a redshirt junior who served as Delaney’s holder on field goals and extra points all of last season and is slated to do so again in 2019, had a terrific offseason while working to replace Coleman. Although Delaney’s pure numbers beat out Griffin, Griffin’s performance and hard work – he was selected to the “Dirty Dozen” for his conditioning numbers and was part of the first round of jersey selections – earned him a scholarship from Coach Mendenhall.

“I’ve always preferred to have a kicker and a punter, and that doesn’t mean not wanting a specialist for kickoff also that’s different than those,” Mendenhall said during his August 26 press conference. “But it’s a tribute to Brian that he’s had the kind of numbers that he has, and it makes him more valuable. So I’m pleased with what I’ve seen there. Really also liked Nash Griffin at punter. Nash was awarded a scholarship. He was not a scholarship player but was awarded a scholarship on Saturday night by what he’s done in camp, so that kind of lets you know what I think of him and what I expect from him.”

Pushing Delaney for kickoff duty as well as on field goals is true freshman walk-on Justin Duenkel, who was one of seven true freshmen to earn the right to select a jersey number in the second round of jersey selection. No true freshmen picked in the first round.

Duenkel, a Virginia legacy out of Flint Hill School in Great Falls (VA), reportedly made a 54-yard field goal at the end of the Cavaliers’ August 9 morning practice. Per Jeff White, he impressed throughout camp. And don’t discount redshirt freshman Hunter Pearson, who again is on scholarship and boasts a strong leg.

The bottom line is that there appears to be high-level competition at all three kicking spots, which could result in the Hoos fielding one of the top kicking units in the ACC in 2019.

50 Virginia Football Thoughts Before Kickoff
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