The Virginia football team will have to wait another week to get its season going, but that could be beneficial for the special teams. UVA special teams coordinator Ricky Brumfield said last week that the Hoos have more options for return roles than ever before so the delay may have added a little extra time to evaluate.
The Cavaliers finished second in the nation last season for kick return average at 28.67 yards per return, but lost the program’s all-time leader in kick return yards when Joe Reed went to the NFL (he got off to a good start there too). For punt returns, they placed 88th nationally in punt return average at 6.08 yards per return so that’s an area that can be targeted for improvement. Having options this season is a good thing.
“It allows you to not play safe,” Brumfield said last week. “Sometimes when you have just one person back there, you may want to just fair catch it or you may just want to run this way and let’s just get to a first down. When you have a lot options, it gives you an opportunity to do multiple things with those options. It allows you to play a little more with that fire and do some maybe tricks or just a couple of things like having two returners back there or something like that. Having more options, it allows you to do multiple things. I’m enjoying it.”
Obviously, finding the heir to Reed’s spot is an eye-catching task. Reed posted 3,402 career kick return yards to set that record and he’s one of just 10 players in FBS history with more than 3K in returns. He also set the program record for kickoff return touchdowns with five. Brumfield said he likes what he’s seen so far from the candidates in that competition.
Virginia is looking at Tavares Kelly, Billy Kemp, Shane Simpson, and Perris Jones as some of the potential kickoff return guys. Kelly has filled in for some kickoffs during his first two seasons with UVA. He has 229 return yards in those limited chances. Last season, Kelly logged 8 returns for 179 yards. Simpson transferred to Virginia this offseason after a strong career at Towson. He accumulated 2,080 kick return yards with two touchdowns for the Tigers and was the 2018 CAA Special Teams Player of the Year. Kemp and Jones have not returned any kicks for the Hoos. Jones primarily has played on special teams to date, including on the kick return unit.
“We’re still trying to figure it out. We do have some great candidates, way more candidates than we’ve ever had in the program,” Brumfield said last week. “From a kick return perspective, obviously Joe Reed was the guy but this year we’ve got a lot more guys. We’ve got Shane Simpson. We’ve got Tavares Kelly. We’ve got Billy Kemp. We’ve got Perris Jones as the other off returner as well. Right now, we’re still trying to figure it out. … Right now, probably leading the pack is Tavares Kelly at the kick return position. He did a great job when he was filling in for Joe last year. He did really well.”
The punt return puzzle has been a missing link for the special teams in recent seasons. For the past three years, the highest the Hoos have ranked is 88th nationally. In fact, other than a brief two-year blip in 2015 and 2016, this has routinely been one of the least productive spots in the program.
Last season, Kemp handled 23 of the team’s 26 punt return attempts. He posted 137 yards with those attempts. Kemp remains in the mix this preseason, but he has challengers. Kelly, who didn’t log any punt returns last season, has some previous experience in the role with 13 returns for 143 yards in 2018. Two transfers have upped the competition level, though. Simpson tallied 104 punt return yards on 15 attempts in 2018 at Towson. Transfer D’Angelo Amos has the best resume to date as he left JMU as that program’s No. 2 all-time punt returner with 1,259 career punt return yards. He returned five punts for touchdowns, including three during the 2018 season.
“Right now for punt return, we’re trying to figure it out and give guys as many reps as possible because we all know what Shane did at the college he was at and we all know what D’Angelo did the college he was at with five touchdowns and Billy Kemp is very good as well. So we’re still trying to key in on that one,” Brumfield said.
Brumfield said he takes a transparent approach with players so he talked with Kemp when the Cavaliers decided to bring in Simpson and Amos. The UVA mantra of ‘earned not given’ generally encourages competition anyway and Brumfield said Kemp has handled the news and the challenge well so far. In fact, he’s upped his game in practices.
“I like his confidence. He stepped up to the challenge,” Brumfield said. “He is probably the one that has stepped up to the challenge more than anybody else. He never said anything, he never had any bad attitude or anything, but his demeanor was almost like he was insulted, you know what I mean, and like I’m going to show you what I’m about. That was really impressive because he’s done a great job and he’s been even better. He’s confident when he catches the ball, he looks the ball into the tuck every single time, and he has the quickness to make things happen after the catch so I was more impressed with his demeanor, his confidence that he’s had throughout camp, and he’s doing really well. It’s really starting to show.”
UVA coach Ricky Brumfield on how he handles when a player makes a mistake as a returner:
“I think it’s throughout the year, throughout the camp. If a kid has been working his butt off all throughout camp, catching balls before practice, catching them after practice, and he’s doing a great job throughout those weeks and he puts one on the ground, I don’t really just pull a kid right after that. Now, if it happens twice (laughs) then he’s got to go. I typically with a kid that has worked his butt off all year long and we know the work he’s put in, if he puts one on the ground, I typically don’t just kick him out the door on that first one. I usually give him another chance. Now if afterward, his demeanor changes and his head is down and different things like that? Again, a lot of it for me is psychological, then there’s a strong possibility we’ll put someone else in because we don’t want that one play to affect the next play.”
On The Other Hand
The flipside of the return game is coverage. Virginia gave up some yardage with the kick return group last season, but limited the number of chances teams got on punt returns.
For kickoff coverage, UVA ranked 121st nationally by allowing 24.9 yards per return a year ago. To date in the Bronco Mendenhall era, that’s been the trend. The Hoos have ranked 117th or lower in each of the last four seasons. They allowed at least one kickoff return touchdown in two of those seasons, though last year’s group didn’t get hit in that category.
For punt coverage, Virginia ranked 119th nationally last season by allowing 12.9 yards per return. That was a dramatic drop off from 2018 when the Hoos ranked third by allowing just 3.21 yards per return, but 2016 and 2017 ranked 65th and 118th respectively.
Coverage numbers can swing pretty wildly on big returns, however, so the best thing both units have going for them is the ability to limit returns at all. In 2018, the Hoos allowed just 24 kickoff returns and that fell to 20 returns last season. Both were in the top 43 nationally for fewest returns. In fact, the 44 combined returns allowed still represent fewer than 11 teams – including Louisville in the ACC – allowed in 2019 alone. In 2018, UVA allowed just 14 punt returns and in 2019, that fell to just 10 total returns. Both of those seasons were in the top 40 nationally for fewest returns. In fact, the 24 combined returns still represent fewer than 11 teams – including the ACC’s Boston College, Pittsburgh, and Georgia Tech – allowed in 2019 alone.
Brumfield said one thing he has focused on this offseason is getting more players prepared to play on coverage units. He hopes that preparation will lead to better consistency even if the lineup changes.
“We didn’t give up touchdowns [last season], but we did give up too many yards than we wanted to give up,” Brumfield said. “Some of it was injuries throughout the season and putting younger guys in positions and different things like that. … I went to the drawing board and figured out how I could put younger guys in a better position earlier to get those guys prepared because in the beginning of the season, we were pretty good as far as all of our coverages go but toward the middle to the end is when a lot of the big breaks started happening. It was due to younger guys getting into position and being unfamiliar with those positions. So from a schematic standpoint, it won’t change a whole lot but I’m just planning on doing a better job putting those guys in better positions to make plays. A lot of that is one me. We’re doing a better job this year and we have a lot more depth this year.”
Some of that added depth is related to the unique nature of the 2020 season. The NCAA has allowed this season to not count as an eligibility year so there’s no reason to try to keep certain players below the typical four-game threshold to preserve a redshirt season. That could allow Virginia, and other teams as well, to prepare young players to immediately contribute on special teams. Brumfield, for example, mentioned players like freshmen linebackers Sam Brady, Jonathan Horton, and Brandon Williams as potential options.
The other spots on special teams feature some familiar names. Kicker Brian Delaney is back as is punter Nash Griffin. Delaney made 20 of 24 field goal attempts last season and forced 57 touchbacks on kickoffs. He earned honorable mention All-ACC recognition. Griffin punted 57 time for an average of 41.9 yards and forced 21 fair catches last season. Both players are on the preseason watch lists for their position’s top award (Lou Groza for kickers and Ray Guy for punters).
Other players at those spots include kickers A.J. Mejia, Hunter Pearson, and Justin Duenkel and punter Brandon Farrell. Delaney, meanwhile, is once again pushing Griffin to work in all three roles on special teams. Brumfield said it is possible for a player to do all three jobs.
“It’s tough. People have done it before obviously. But it definitely is tough, it’s a little strain on your leg,” Brumfield said. “In all actuality, he does it pretty much every day at practice anyway. If he’s not the starting punter, then he’s the backup punter so he needs to get practice punting regardless. Then when we go into games, he has to warm up being a kicker, a field goal kicker and a kickoff kicker, and a punter as well. So he’s kind of been doing those things already anyway. I know from a mental standpoint, it is a little more mentally draining. I think it’s something he could do. If he wins that job, he could be good at all three of them.”
Virginia is also sorting through its long snapper options. Lee Dudley, who handled field goal snaps in 2019 is back, while transfer senior Danny Caracciolo and sophomore Tucker Finkleston are working there as well. UVA split the duties for field goals and punts last season so that’s a possibility as well. Brumfield said last week that they are keeping the competition going for those guys.
“We want it to be perfect. On the short snaps for field goals, we want the laces at 12 o’clock, we want the snap right where it’s supposed to be, and the same thing with punts, we want it right to the hip and we want the speed of the snaps to be a whole lot faster,” Brumfield said. “They’re all doing a good job and right now, honestly, they’re fairly even with each other. It’s pretty much an even battle right now.”