Virginia Tech wrapped up spring practice on April 20, although questions remain heading into the summer that won’t have more definitive answers until fall camp. Nevertheless, the spring cleared up some things. Over the next two weeks, I’ll be taking a look back at what the Hokies figured out and what remains a work in progress.
Today, we’ll cover the specialists. If you missed a previous installment, you can get to it here: quarterbacks, running backs, receivers and tight ends, offensive line, defensive line, linebackers and defensive backs.
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– PK: Cody Journell, Sr. (starter), Brooks Abbott, So.
– P: A.J. Hughes, So. (starter), Michael Branthover, Jr.
– LS: Joe St. Germain, Jr. (starter), Eddie D’Antuono, r-Fr.
– H: Trey Gresh, Jr. (starter), Mark Leal, Jr.
– KR: Demitri Knowles, So. or J.C. Coleman, So.
– PR: Kyshoen Jarrett, Jr. (starter), Michael Holmes, So.
The Hokies have to feel good about their kicking game coming out of the spring. Journell showed a little bit more power, connecting on a 55-yarder in one scrimmage (his career long in college remains 42 yards). Abbott made plenty of kicks too, hitting from 41 and 45 in one scrimmage and suggesting Tech should be in good shape once Journell’s eligibility is up. After a strong freshman season, Hughes picked up where he left off. He had a 47.8-yard average during one scrimmage. Returns were limited in scrimmages, but Jarrett and Knowles continued to show explosiveness back there. The hope is that Josh Trimble can take over Alonzo Tweedy‘s role as a gunner on punts.
Individual performances of kickers, punters and returners haven’t been the downfall of the Hokies’ special teams lately. It’s been consistency and all-too-frequent gaffes (like roughing the kicker, muffing an errant punt, dropping the snap, etc.). Without seeing the special teams units in action for an extended period of time this spring, it’s tough to tell if Tech has started moving in the right direction to fix what’s been ailing this group. But something clearly has been off in recent years.
HELP ON THE WAY
With most of the starting spots pretty much decided on special teams, the biggest help might be from last year’s redshirt freshman class, which should step into roles on kick and punt coverage teams. That’s where young players first start making an impact. There are plenty of return candidates in the 2013 class — Kendall Fuller, Charles Clark and Anthony Shegog, among others — but they’d have to be something really special to supplant Knowles, Coleman or Jarrett in the return game. That’d be surprising.
Hughes had a strong freshman season, but he still ranked sixth in the ACC and 66th nationally in net punting (40.56 avg.). With a year under his belt, this could be the time when he really takes a step forward. His season peaked in the Russell Athletic Bowl, where he punted 11 times and had a 42.2-yard average with a long of 57, numbers that earned him national all-bowl team recognition. If he can pick up where he left off, Tech could be set at punter for quite a while.
BATTLE TO WATCH
The Hokies never settled on a kickoff specialist last year. Branthover did it to start the season, giving way to Abbott. Neither thrived in the role. By the end of the year, Journell was handling kickoff duties. Those three will be in competition for the job again this year. Tech wants to do directional kicking on kickoffs at times, so it’s more than simply finding the player with the strongest leg. The competition lasted all of last season and didn’t provide a clear-cut answer. It wouldn’t be surprising if it went right up to the start of the 2013 season.
THEY SAID IT
“Trimble played backer for me last fall, but was primarily a special teams guy and really performed well. He was one of our leaders on special teams. The guy could come down. Not that he’s going to be Tweedy, but if it wasn’t Tweedy, it was Trimble making the play.” — defensive coordinator Bud Foster
On the face of things, Tech’s special teams appear to be solid. The personnel in the kicking game is all the same and Jarrett and Knowles were among the more dangerous punt and kick returners, respectively, in the nation last year. But something has been off in recent years with special teams. Football Outsiders ranks efficiency of special teams units. The Hokies last year ranked 62nd out of 124 teams, squarely in the middle. (And a moderate improvement from 68th in 2011.) That speaks to the inconsistency of the group. Sure, one part might stand out in a game, but there were rare moments last year when every facet was clicking at the same time. Tech finished first nationally in those efficiency ratings as recently as 2010, so it’s not like it is so far removed from overall success that it can’t get back there, and perhaps having everyone back will help it accomplish that. But the Hokies will need to shore up some things across the board to get back to having the special teams that everybody in the league and country envies.