The ACC Kickoff (aka media days) is fast approaching, something we media members consider the unofficial start of the football season. That’s not until July 21, however. In the meantime, it’s as good a time as any to start taking a closer look at Virginia Tech.
This isn’t a list of the 25 best players on the Hokies’ roster. It’s a list of 25 things/people/ideas that will determine whether Virginia Tech’s 2013 season is a success or not. Next up is …
No. 16: A.J. Hughes, punter
If there was a bright spot in an otherwise dreary Russell Athletic Bowl (other than the final score), it was the left leg of Hughes, a walk-on finishing his first season in Blacksburg.
Hughes, who beat out veteran Michael Branthover and fellow freshman Hunter Windmuller for the starting gig, capped his first year with a bang, punting 11 times and averaging 42.2 yards against Rutgers. That included four punts downed inside the 20 and three longer than 50 yards, with a long of 57.
Not bad for a true freshman. Now on scholarship, he’ll try for an encore.
There’s room for improvement. For as much as Hughes was a boost to the punting game after a disastrous 2011 campaign in which nobody seized the job (unless you count Danny Coale), he still averaged just 40.6 yards per punt. That’s the third lowest average for a primary Hokies punter since 2005 and several yards shy of the peak in that time, Brian Saunders‘ 44.0-yard average in 2010.
As a team, Virginia Tech still ranked seventh in the ACC in net punting and 78th nationally. Nevertheless, that was a marked improvement from the previous year.
The most encouraging part of Hughes’ season was that he appeared to get better near the end of the year after a midseason swoon. He had 14 punts downed inside the 20 in the last five games (nearly double the total in the first eight) and had his best games in the season’s final two months against Florida State (44.5 avg.) and Rutgers.
Questions will surround Virginia Tech’s new-look offense, which means the Hokies might have to win games with the tried-and-true method of defense and special teams. Field position is paramount in that type of game, so Hughes could play a major factor.
Considering Hughes is only entering his second year, his career figures to be on an upward trajectory, something Tech fans haven’t seen in the punting game in a few years.
Coming Saturday: One’s a veteran looking to rebound, one’s an up-and-comer who could break out.