Asked how Virginia football replaces its best kick returner in school history, Special Teams Coordinator Ricky Brumfield said plainly, “There’s no replacing Joe Reed. Joe Reed is one of a kind.”
Reed set UVA records for career kick return yardage (3,042) and career kick return touchdowns (5) while also becoming the only player in Football Bowl Subdivision history to achieve over 2,700 career kick return yards with a career kick return average of over 28 yards.
There were occasions, especially late last season, when a banged-up Reed did not return kicks, giving Virginia a glimpse at future options. One of those options was true freshman speedster Seneca Milledge, who returned eight kicks for 206 yards but transferred out of the program this offseason. Brumfield mentioned another speedster from the Sunshine State as the frontrunner to be Virginia’s primary kick returner in 2020.
“Tavares Kelly right now is a guy that we feel can do a great job to help lead us to winning a conference championship at the [kick return] position,” Brumfield said. “I think he only averaged 22 yards a return, but I know one of those returns he kind of made a little mistake stepping out of bounds in the Louisville game. If that wasn’t the case, he would have averaged almost 25 yards a kick return.”
To Brumfield’s point, the 5’8”, 160-pound rising junior returned two kicks versus Louisville for 22 yards. He returned one kick in the home opener against William & Mary for 28 yards and five kicks for 129 yards against Georgia Tech. Outside of the Louisville game, Kelly averaged over 26 yards per return in six attempts.
While Virginia looks for a solution at kick returner, Brumfield expects more production out of another rising junior, Billy Kemp IV, in punt return. Kemp IV emerged as a reliable receiver in the UVA passing game last season while also serving as the team’s primary punt returner. He finished with 23 returns for 137 yards, an average of 5.96 yards per return. His best return was 22 yards against William & Mary.
“He’s that person that doesn’t let the bright lights get to him,” Brumfield said of Kemp IV.
“With Billy having a year under his belt catching punts in big-time games, he’s going to be a big-time player for us,” added Brumfield, who believes Kemp IV could be a field position-changer in his punt return role.
In other Special Teams news, Brumfield reported that starting placekicker and kickoff man Brian Delaney is progressing health-wise. Delaney, who made 20-of-24 field goals including a 48-yarder that gave Virginia the lead for good against Virginia Tech, would have missed spring practice but is expected to be healthy by the start of the regular season.
“He’s doing good,” Brumfield said of Delaney, a rising senior. “He has full range of motion in his hip. He’s getting treatment via Zoom meetings. He is not doing any full kicks right now. He was going to miss spring, so not having the spring didn’t hurt him, but missing physical therapy isn’t good for him either. He should be full go by the beginning of August to be able to kick full speed – kickoffs, field goals, and punts as well.”
Delaney has become a reliable placekicker for Virginia, but he was more highly regarded as a punter coming out of high school. His goal is to handle all three UVA kicking duties, and he’s aiming to reach that goal in 2020. Last year’s starting punter, Nash Griffin, is expected to return for a fifth year of eligibility.
“Nash will be back,” said Brumfield.
Griffin averaged 41.93 yards per punt in 57 tries last season. Six punts went 50 yards or more and 24 settled inside the opponent’s 20. Despite the solid season, Griffin is competing for the starting punter role in 2020.
“We’ll also have Brian Delaney and we’ll also have (rising redshirt freshman walk-on) Brendan Farrell,” Brumfield said.
“Delaney is on a mission to take over punts,” Brumfield added.
Virginia Tech Highlights: Delaney’s Kick, Hanback’s Touchdown
Coach Brumfield had “100% faith” that Delaney would make the 48-yard field goal in last November’s victory over Virginia Tech. Delaney’s make gave UVA a 33-30 lead with 1:23 remaining in the fourth quarter.
“I really knew he was going to make it,” Brumfield said. “Reason being is I remember , we played Georgia Tech and he missed a field goal in overtime. He went straight to coach and then he came to us and he was like, ‘That’ll never happen again.’”
“I think any situation, he would have made that kick,” Brumfield said.
Twenty-two seconds after Delaney put the Hoos on top, Virginia sealed its first victory over Virginia Tech in 15 years with a defensive touchdown. Defensive end Mandy Alonso sacked Tech quarterback Hendon Hookier, who fumbled. Fifth-year senior defensive lineman Eli Hanback fell on the football for the score, igniting his teammates and the Scott Stadium crowd in jubilation.
“Scoring that touchdown against Virginia Tech is a feeling I don’t know if I’ve ever felt before in my life,” Hanback recalled in a videoconference interview with media last week. “Everyone says it’s those moments where stuff goes quiet around you and you don’t hear anything else. It was one of those moments. It was unbelievable.”
Via Twitter, Virginia football held a “March Madness” of its own featuring top plays from last season. Not surprisingly, Hanback’s Commonwealth Cup-clinching score cruised to victory, defeating Hasise Dubois’ outstanding touchdown grab against Florida.
— Virginia Football (@UVAFootball) April 20, 2020
Virginia head coach Bronco Mendenhall has referred to his fourth and fifth-year players as the “pioneers” of the program, forming the foundations that have helped Cavalier football ascend the past four years. From Mendenhall last November: “I consider them, I use the word pioneers. I didn’t choose that recruiting class necessarily. I confirmed it, meaning I chose to honor their scholarships. They didn’t commit or sign with me basically in terms of their initial commitment. Once the coaching change was made, they chose to stay. I’m so grateful and lucky that they did.”
“We certainly could not and would not have made the progress without just their consistency, but really the willingness to trust us,” Mendenhall continued. “You can’t coach someone effectively unless trust is established. They made a decision early on and have maintained that decision. They call it trusting the process. They tell that to the younger players, it works, so trust it. Doesn’t mean they even always understand it. They literally chose to trust before they saw results here. I’ve been so grateful for that and to them.”
Hanback arrived at UVA a season before Mendenhall. He redshirted his freshman campaign before playing in all 52 of Virginia’s games in the Mendenhall era, earning 48 starts the last four seasons. Quietly, the 2019 All-ACC Honorable Mention selection became an invaluable part of UVA’s ascension.
“A lot of people know I grew up a UVA fan,” Hanback said. “Being able to be part of the program during a time where it’s ascending and getting really good and accomplishing the things we accomplished is an awesome thing that I’ll remember for the rest of my life. For future players to come I’m glad that I was part of that time period where we were held to a higher standard that they are going to be able to experience.”
“Being able to beat Virginia Tech is … that’ll be a memory I remember for the rest of my life too,” Hanback continued. “It’s one of the greatest moments of my life. Winning the Coastal with that and getting to play in the ACC Championship and going to an Orange Bowl, we experienced so many awesome things a lot of guys before us weren’t able to experience, but those guys before us laid the foundation for us and people like me and J-Mack were able to carry it forward and getting better and better every year. It means a lot. I was able to be part of something that was bigger than myself.”
Mack was part of the recruiting class Mendenhall referred to in the above quote. He verbally committed to Mike London but stayed with the Hoos following the coaching change. The Georgia native was an impact player from the start, starting nine of 12 games at outside linebacker as a true freshman in 2016. The 6’2”, 230-pound standout moved inside for his final three seasons, playing in 35 games – including 34 starts – in that span. He earned All-ACC Third Team honors for his play as a senior.
“It meant a lot just to be there during a time to see UVA football from that 2-10 to a 9-5 season,” Mack said. “To be able to experience the highs and lows, that’s something that you’ll carry and cherish for the rest of your life. Something that you can also come back and preach to the guys that it works. If you trust the process, it can take you to places that are indescribable and leave you with a lifetime full of memories.”
A month into the 2016 season, then-true freshman Mack and redshirt freshman Hanback were in on this memorable play in what would be Virginia’s first road victory in the Mendenhall era.