New Specialists Will Step Into Special Teams Pressure Cooker For Virginia

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Virginia opens the season against William & Mary.
Josh Duenkel handled the kickoff duties for seven games last season at Virginia. ~ Photo courtesy Matt Riley/Virginia Athletics Media Relations

Kickoff is closing in for the Virginia football team, which opens its season on Saturday against William & Mary. That game is set for 7:30 p.m at Scott Stadium. It’s an “orange out” so the team will be in its orange jerseys and there’s a push for fans to wear their orange to the game as well.

While many of the starters for that game were already known, or at least assumed due to previous experience, the specialist positions were largely up in the air. That’s the latest topic for the “50 Thoughts Before Virginia Football Kickoff” series – “New Specialists Will Step Into Special Teams Pressure Cooker For Virginia.”

Place kickers are always in the spotlight because their job, though fewer in snaps, can directly swing the score. That puts a premium on each repetition they get in a game vs. say a defensive end or a receiver, who might get away with an execution mistake if the play for a particular snap goes to the opposite side of field. Brian Delaney thrived in that environment once he stepped in as UVA’s kicker midway through the 2018 season as he stabilized that position for the next two and a half seasons. He finished his career 42 of 53 on field goals and 110 of 113 on extra points.

It’s hard to know how any kicker will react once they are kicking in a live college game for the first time on television with fans in the stands. Special Teams Coordinator Ricky Brumfield noted with the media earlier in August that everyone sees when that kicker misses and can quickly point it out, but that the other specialists at long snapper and holder also have to endure that pressure cooker and execute. A low snap or a hold with the seams twisted can cause a kick to miss too. The Hoos will have new faces at kicker and holder this season as part of that three-man operation.

The kicker competition had been reportedly close throughout the spring and fall according to the coaches, but Justin Duenkel took the top spot on the first game’s depth chart. He backed up Delaney last season and handled the kickoff duties for the final seven games. Hunter Pearson, who had battled with Duenkel in practices, is not on the depth chart nor does he have a jersey number yet. Pearson had some injury troubles in the past so it’s possible that something popped up again, but for now Brendan Farrell is Mr. Reserve. Farrell is listed as the back-up punter, the back-up field goal kicker, and the back-up kickoff specialist.

Duenkel has yet to attempt a field goal in college, but he did make an extra point against Duke in 2019. Even so, he shouldn’t be uncomfortable at home. In addition to practice and kickoff experience at Scott Stadium, he’s been coming to the venue for years as a fan. His father Doug played at UVA and graduated in 1992 so the family has been to many games over the years. That’s part of what drew Duenkel to Virginia as a recruited walk-on from Flint Hill School in Northern Virginia.

A right-footed kicker, he has a strong leg. In fact, Delaney told Jeff White at VirginiaSports.com that Duenkel “has a massive leg,” “an NFL-caliber-strength leg.” That was evident on kickoffs last season when he produced 26 touchbacks on 43 kickoffs. If he’s able to maintain accuracy, that might extend the field goal range for UVA. The Hoos attempted just 10 kicks beyond 40 yards in Delaney’s two plus seasons.

Of course, as Brumfield said, the accuracy isn’t always 100 percent on the kicker. That’s where the other two parts of the trio come into play. The long snapper should be the same with Danny Caracciolo listed atop the depth chart again as the season approaches. The Cavaliers also have an experienced backup for field goal snaps in Lee Dudley, who handled that job for the 2019 season but missed last fall due to an injury.

The other new part of the operation is the holder. Nash Griffin held for Delaney the majority of the last two seasons, but the former starting punter finished his career alongside Delaney. That’s where receiver Jared Rayman enters the equation. The redshirt sophomore holds the top spot on the depth chart for the William & Mary game. Like Duenkel, he had a Virginia connection back home. He played at Pace Academy in Georgia for former Cavalier All-American Chris Slade. Like Griffin before him, he’s a good athlete and that opens up possibilities for special teams. Rayman passed for 22 touchdowns as a senior quarterback at Pace.

Beyond the kicking game, there are other new specialists on other units too. Jacob Finn, a Florida transfer, won the punting job for the opener. Spotlighted in a previous entry in the 50 Thoughts series, Finn played in all 12 games last season for the Gators. The punting unit there ranked third in the FBS in punting net average. He also has experience as a back-up holder if needed. Long snapper Tucker Finkleston returns in the snap-and-cover role again this season.

The other specialists are the returners. Billy Kemp IV remains the mainstay at punt returner. He has averaged 6.0 yards per return in 40 career attempts. He’s steady with decisions and catching the ball so while the unit could use a boost, a lot of it has been centered around the blocking roles farther up field than at the return spot. Still, Kemp did get some competition in camp from Antonio Clary and you could see him back there as well. Since Clary plays safety, in fact, you could have him rotate back with the regular defense on the field if you’re protecting against fakes in certain areas of the field. Clary was an all-district utility player in high school and also ran track.

One of the most interesting specialist spots, however, is at kick returner. Virginia fans – and coaches really – were spoiled by the work of Joe Reed in that role. Reed earned All-America recognition as a kick returner in 2019. He’s also the program record holder for kickoff return yards at 3,042 and kickoff return touchdowns with 5. The Cavaliers didn’t get much going at kick return last season after his departure to the NFL, but there are two new players in the starting roles now and as many as six players got a look in training camp so you could see different combinations to try to find a spark.

With depth at running back in place, the two listed starters make sense with Ronnie Walker Jr. and Mike Hollins holding that honor. UVA coach Bronco Mendenhall said in August that he liked how running backs and slot receivers hit the openings and the timing of when they hit those openings, something that takes practice. Beyond the experience of finding seams as a running back, the backs in Virginia’s offensive system also get called on to provide lead blocks at times on quarterback carries. That skill translates to the off returner on kickoffs, who will become a lead blocker if a return is attempted. That’s part of the reason that Perris Jones, who was one of the six in the mix, has been back there previously on some kicks.

If the blocking players can create a seam, both Walker and Hollins have more open-field speed than perceived. Regardless of the ability to sprint to the house, the combination of decent speed, good vision, and running lane experience is something the coaches hope translate to the kickoff return game.

Overall, the pressure cooker world for these specialists extends beyond just the fans watching the game. This edition of the Cavaliers has a lot of experience on offense and defense so there is an optimism bubbling out of the program ahead of the 2021 season. If new starters at kicker, punter, and kick returner struggle, deal with inconsistency, or blink in a big game moment, it could erase some of the advantages elsewhere. For a team trying to prove that last season’s 5-5 finish was a hiccup and not a break from the Bryce Perkins era rise, it’s important for the specialists to get the job done. That could add a little more heat to the cooker this season.

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