Feel free to agree or disagree with my selections. The comments section is open for it.
** Net punting: 36.21 avg. (77th nationally, 8th ACC)
** Punt returns: 12.48 avg. (23rd nationally, 6th ACC)
** Kickoff returns 23.23 avg. (42nd nationally, 5th ACC)
High point: It’s tough to pick one game where everything came together, so I’ll go with the best highlight of the year — Kyshoen Jarrett‘s 94-yard punt return for a touchdown against Pittsburgh. The return was pretty and Ronny Vandyke leveled two would-be tacklers with one block, springing Jarrett up the sideline. You can’t draw it up much better than that.
Also considered: Cody Journell‘s late FGs vs. Georgia Tech, A.J. Hughes vs. Cincinnati, Demitri Knowles‘ kick return vs. UNC
Low point: The Hokies had a kick return for a touchdown by Knowles against North Carolina, but it wasn’t enough to undo some special teams gaffes. UNC’s Sean Tapley returned a kick 94 yards for a touchdown, the first TD Tech has given up on a kick return in 237 games. Later in the first quarter, J.R. Collins jumped offsides when the Tar Heels were lining up for a field goal. It gave them a first down and they capitalized with a touchdown. That’s 11 points you can attribute directly to the special teams.
Also considered: Hughes dropping snap vs. GT, Christian Reeves touching short punt, turning it over at Clemson
Biggest surprise: Hughes hasn’t been an All-ACC caliber punter, but relative to what the Hokies had last year, he’s been outstanding. The freshman walk-on has a 40.1-yard average through eight games. That’s still ninth in the ACC, but it’s nearly three and a half yards better than last year, when Michael Branthover and Scott Demler struggled all season before being bailed out by Danny Coale at the end of the year. Hughes has had some shanks, but he’s shown a big leg at times too. Against Cincinnati he had punts of 55, 56 and 57 yards.
Also considered: Jarrett, Knowles, Journell
Biggest disappointment: Virginia Tech has been solid across the board on special teams, but the blocked punts that helped define “Beamer Ball” have been few and far between. Tony Gregory blocked a punt against Austin Peay. Hokies fans gave a collective yawn. Virginia Tech hasn’t blocked a punt against an FBS opponent since the Boise State game to open 2010.
Also considered: Jumping offsides on FG defense a couple times
Special teams MVP: Journell has had a heck of a season, making 10 of 11 field goals and coming up clutch against Georgia Tech to send the game to overtime and win it. But Jarrett, I think, has been more influential in the punt return game. He jumpstarted a team that appeared to be sleepwalking against Austin Peay with a 46-yard return. The next week, he had the 94-yarder for a touchdown against Pitt. His 18.1-yard average is fourth nationally. It makes you wonder why the Hokies ever put Michael Holmes back there.
Also considered: Journell, Hughes, Knowles, Alonzo Tweedy
Telling stat: Take Coale’s punts out of last year’s stats and Hughes’ 40.1-yard average is 5.2 yards better than the combination of Branthover and Demler.
Telling stat, Part II: The Hokies have had only one blocked punt in each of the last five years. At its height, in 1998, “Beamer Ball” produced eight blocked punts.
Telling stat, Part III: In 31 kickoffs, Brooks Abbott has eight touchbacks and opponents are starting at their own 29-yard line on average. In 14 kickoffs, Michael Branthover has seven touchbacks and opponents are starting at their own 17-yard line. Abbott has handled kickoffs the last five games.
Outlook: It’s erroneous to say that “Beamer Ball” is back, not when the thing that defined that era of special teams play so much — blocked kicks/punts — has been close to non-existent this year. But the special teams, as a whole, have been solid this season. Journell has been reliable, Jarrett and Knowles explosive threats and Hughes a major upgrade from a last year. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Alonzo Tweedy being a standout on the coverage teams. That covers all the bases on special teams.
What’s still lacking is the momentum-changing plays that have defined Virginia Tech’s special teams for so long. There have been the returns by Jarrett and Knowles, but the Hokies seem to have given away momentum more than they are taking it. They gave up the kick return for a touchdown against UNC. They’ve jumped offsides on field goal attempts twice, both of which led to touchdowns. They turned it over in a crucial time at Clemson when Reeves couldn’t get out of the way of a wayward punt. Those things add up over the course of a season and are part of the reason for Tech’s 4-4 record.