The Hokies’ punting game got off to an inauspicious start this season. A.J. Hughes hit a low liner, the coverage team flailed at a few tackles and Alabama’s Christion Jones returned the first punt of the year 72 yards for a touchdown.
But things have come around since then. Hughes is booming punts, freshman Chuck Clark is establishing himself as a gunner and Virginia Tech has been able to play the field position game to its advantage, something that doesn’t bother Frank Beamer one bit.
“Knowing that we have the No. 1 defense in the country, every opportunity I’m on the field, if I can put them inside the 10, that’s what I’m shooting for,” Hughes said. “Because magical things are going to happen when the ball is so close to the opposing goal line.”
Hughes has been one of the Hokies’ unsung heroes this year, leading the ACC and ranking eighth nationally with a 45.3-yard punting average, up 4.7 yards from his freshman campaign.
He’s already equaled his number of punts of 50-plus from last year with 15 and has hit his goal of getting a 5-second hang time several times. Last year, he only did it once in a game.
Above all, he’s been consistent. Hughes has averaged over 40 yards per punt in all seven games this year. Including last year’s Russell Athletic Bowl, when he made perhaps the best case ever for a punter to win bowl MVP honors, that’s eight straight games of averaging 40-plus, tying the longest streak under Beamer.
“As a whole, our unit is really just doing a great job,” Hughes said. “I’ve got a good long snapper. He’s putting it right on the money. And if it’s a good snap, it’s a good punt. That’s really how I look at it.”
The punt coverage team that looked so helpless in the Alabama game still isn’t perfect, although it has been better. The Hokies rank 96th nationally in punt coverage, a figure that’s still largely weighed down by that 72-yard return in the opener, but Clark, a 6-foot, 197-pound freshman from King’s Fork High in Suffolk, is establishing himself as a special teams stopper.
Clark has a team-high nine special teams tackles. His six tackles on punt coverage are twice as many as anyone else on the team. For a squad that prized what Alonzo Tweedy did last year, having somebody begin to assume that role is crucial.
“I’ve heard a lot about him and guys say, ‘Oh, you’re the next Tweedy’ or whatever,” Clark said. “I kind of just like laugh about it, because I actually haven’t seen him [on tape] but I’ve heard about him on special teams.”
Clark thinks that special teams work is helping him get more defensive reps. He’s a bit of a reserve utility defensive back. Expected to begin his career at free safety, he’s instead worked at all the positions in the secondary. He subbed in at corner for Brandon Facyson against Georgia Tech and did so again versus North Carolina when Facyson had to leave briefly after a big hit.
“It is a little bit [tough],” Clark said of playing multiple spots. “But when you start to get the concept of one position and knowing what the other is doing, it all kind of correlates and flows in.”
Still, his biggest impact this year will probably be on special teams. It takes time to get that operation down.
“In practice, I kind of look where the ball’s coming off,” Clark said. “And when they say it’s going a certain way to just kind of get the feel of it and where I have to be on the field at certain points at certain times and how long he keeps it up in the air.”
For how Virginia Tech is playing offensively, getting those yards on special teams is important.
“You guys know how much I love field position,” Beamer said after the Pitt game. “The quickest way to get it is through the kicking game. All of that hidden yardage adds up at the end of the day.”