99 Virginia Football Thoughts Before Kickoff

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The Virginia football team kicks off in fewer than 60 days.
A.J. Mejia kicks the ball for Virginia in 2017. ~ Mike Ingalls

Over the past two seasons, the Virginia football team has ranked outside the top 100 teams nationally in scoring offense. The Hoos checked in at No. 115 in 2016 by averaging 22.5 points per game, while they climbed slightly to No. 107 in 2017 with the same 22.5 average.

One of the main culprits falls outside the offense and on to the shoulders of special teams, though.

The “99 Virginia Football Thoughts Before Kickoff” series kicks into gear again …

No. 56 – Lordy, Lordy, How ‘Bout 40?

During the first two seasons of the Bronco Mendenhall era, the Cavaliers haven’t been able to add more points to the scoreboard with the kicking game on special teams. In fact, UVA has made just 13 field goals over the two seasons combined for a total of 39 points. To give that a little extra perspective, 65 Football Bowl Subdivision teams made more field goals than that in 2017 alone!

In the ACC, five teams made 18 field goals last season to rank among the top 31 teams nationally in the category. That, of course, is Virginia’s direct league competition and the Hoos made just eight kicks last year to tie for 117th in the country. In 2016, the same pattern existed as five ACC teams made at least 18 kicks to rank among the top 33 teams nationally, while UVA tied for 125th with five makes.

That’s leaving a lot of points on the table.

So far, the coaches simply haven’t felt comfortable attempting a lot of field goals from any sort of significant distance. The Cavaliers have yet to make a kick from beyond 40 yards as they enter year three of the Mendenhall era. In 2016, they made just two attempts even beyond 30 yards with a 36-yard long from Sam Hayward. In 2017, they doubled that to four made attempts from beyond 30 yards with a 38-yard long from A.J. Mejia.

To get kickers close enough to get inside that 40-yard range, the offense needs to sustain a drive to the opponent’s 23-yard line or better (and the 13-yard line to get to the 30-yard mark). That puts a lot of pressure on execution between the 30- and 50-yard line in order to get a shot at any points.

Here’s a breakdown of the past four seasons to show how big of a deal that limited range has been to the scoring totals:

  • 38-yard long from A.J. Mejia, who was 8-12 overall on the season.
  • Opponents had three makes from 40-49 yards and two more from 50 or 51 yards. That’s a +5 advantage and 15 points on distance attempts, though the Hoos managed to hold opponents to just nine makes overall on the season to negate most of the discrepancy.
  • 36-yard long from Sam Hayward, while UVA went 5-10 overall on the season.
  • Opponents had seven makes from 40-49 yards and one more from 50 yards. That’s a +8 advantage and 24 points on distance attempts, which UVA could not close the gap on overall. Opponents made 16 of 21 attempts on the year for a +11 advantage of 33 points.
  • 48-yard long from Ian Frye, who went 17 of 22 overall.
  • Frye produced 10 makes from 40-49 yards, while opponents had nine from 40-49 yards and four more from 50 or 51 yards. That’s a +3 advantage of 9 points for opponents on distance attempts, a much more manageable number. Opponents made 22 of 28 kicks overall for a +5 edge of 15 points.
  • 47-yard long from Frye, who went 22 of 27 overall.
  • Frye nailed nine makes from 40-49 yards, while opponents had just four. That’s, a +5 edge of 15 points on distance attempts for UVA. Opponents went 13 of 18 overall, giving Virginia a +9 edge of 27 points on the season.

Having a kicker that is a threat on kicks in the 40- to 51-yard range is a huge boost for the offense as you can see from Frye’s final two seasons. In those two years, he made UVA competitive with opponents on distance makes and lifted the team up the made field goals chart nationally. The Hoos ranked ninth (tie) in 2014 with those 22 makes and 42nd (tie) in 2015 with those 17 makes.

How much would having a kicker of that quality have helped the offense the past two seasons? If you take Frye’s two-year average of 19.5 field goals made, that would have given the 2016 team 14.5 more makes for 43.5 more points. That would have lifted the scoring average by 3.6 points per game to 26.1 points and moved UVA from 115th nationally to 87th. In 2017, that would have given the team 11.5 more makes for 34.5 more points. That would have lifted the regular season scoring average (since Frye played in just 12 games) by 2.9 points per game to 26.7 and moved UVA from around 102nd nationally to 79th nationally.

That doesn’t even take into account how having someone with Frye’s leg could have changed the new coaches’ approach the past two seasons. Virginia went for it on fourth down 28 times last season, which tied for 28th nationally. In 2016, the Hoos went for it 23 times on fourth down to tie for 38th nationally. Would some of those decisions change if a field goal from a greater distance was in play?

This is a key area to watch this season because UVA must replace a lot of critical positions on this year’s team, including the critical quarterback spot. Finding a kicker that can push the range past 40 yards could help ease the burden of breaking in a new starter there. Plus, if this year’s team is going to be right on the line for the magic six wins number that could produce back-to-back bowl appearances for the first time since 2004 and 2005,then having a field goal kicker to threaten opponents with more points could be a big boost in any potentially close games.

Mejia returns after his true freshman season provided a little bit of stability in 2017. He’ll be in competition with fellow sophomores Brian Delaney, who handled kickoff duties last fall, and Nash Griffin as well as incoming freshman Hunter Pearson from South Carolina. Kohl’s Kicking ranks Pearson as the No. 5 kicker in the incoming class. If any of those players can become a consistent weapon with greater range, that could help Virginia put more points on the board moving forward.

The “99 Virginia Football Thoughts Before Kickoff” series has discussed much more. The previous articles are below. Click away.

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