Virginia Tech is nationally recognized for their excellent
special teams play, but to be honest, certain aspects have fallen off in recent
years. Punters have been dropping snaps, punts are getting blocked, and the
Pride and Joy unit isn’t blocking as many punts. There have also been some
critical field goals missed in crunch time. The Hokies must improve in these
areas if they hope to run the table in 2005.
Field Goals and Extra Points
Brandon Pace has been a somewhat maligned kicker because
of his performance in the clutch against NC State and Auburn. However, Pace was
very consistent for the majority of the 2004 season, hitting 21-27 field goal
attempts. He also appears to be consistently accurate from every range. He went
7-8 from the 20-29 yard range, 10-13 from 30-39, and 4-6 from 40-49. Pace has
been even better this August, hitting all seven of his field goal attempts in
one realistically has a chance to beat out Brandon pace as the Hokies’ field
goal kicker. Nic Schmitt, a highly touted place kicker out of high school, would
be the second choice. Frank Beamer also has Jared Develli, Jud Dunlevy and John
Hedge as reserves. Tech should have a reliable, accurate kicker this season,
provided that Brandon Pace stays healthy. However, until he proves otherwise in
a game, his ability in the clutch is a question mark. Remember this: if the
Hokies are to make a run at the national championship, Pace will probably have
to kick at least one clutch field goal, as Shayne Graham did against WVU in
Both Nic Schmitt and Brent Bowden have had some very good
moments in practice thus far. However, both have displayed bouts of
inconsistency, particularly the true freshman Bowden. Schmitt has been very good
in the past week, including the scrimmage this past Saturday, and appears to be
the front runner to win the job. Schmitt has a powerful leg, and if he can
develop consistency in games, the Hokies have a chance to upgrade their punting
from last season.
Kick and Punt Returns
Frank Beamer has a lot of weapons that he can employ to
return kicks and punts. The front runner to win the punt return job is Eddie
Royal. Royal served as Tech’s primary punt returner last season, averaging 11
yards per return with a long of 58. He never took one back for a touchdown, but
he came very close on several occasions. He is a big time player with the ball
in his hands in the open field, and with an outstanding Tech defense taking the
field this fall, Royal should see a lot of action at punt returner.
But Royal isn’t the only option back there. The Hokies
have other weapons that can field a punt, such as David Clowney and Mike Imoh.
Royal will likely begin the season as the starter, but any slip up could cause
Clowney or Imoh, or any of Tech’s other fine athletes such as Macho Harris, to
take the position away.
Royal is an option on kickoff returns as well. He had 12
returns last season for 346 yards, an average of 28.8 yards per return. Mike
Imoh returned 12 kicks as well for 256 yards (21.3 ypr). Imoh is very
experienced as a kickoff returner, having played there in 2003 and 2004. He
returned a kickoff for a touchdown against UConn in 2003. Other options for
kickoff return include Macho Harris, David Clowney, Josh Hyman and Josh Morgan.
Frank Beamer has indicated recently that he was
disappointed last season that the Hokies missed so many opportunities to block
punts, so he has decided to overhaul his Pride and Joy team for the 2005 season.
Beamer specifically mentioned that Xavier Adibi, Darryl Tapp and Josh Hyman
would serve on the punt blocking team in an effort to get Tech’s most skilled
athletes and kick blockers on the field.
The Hokies are still every bit as good at getting field
goal blocks as they used to be (three blocked field goals last year, all by Jim
Davis), but punt blocking has lagged behind recently, with just two blocked
punts total in the last two seasons. One reason for that is the strategy of
opposing teams. Rather than have a kick blocked, opposing coaching are lining up
their entire punt team in protection, with no outside gunners. This creates
better protection for the punter, but coverage suffers. Because of this, the
Hokies have been able to achieve a lot of success in returning punts the last
few seasons, taking nine to the house from 2000-2004.
With Beamer’s renewed emphasis on blocking punts, expect
the Hokies to improve in that area in 2005. That could potentially make the
difference between a win or a loss in a close game.
Protection and Mental Errors
Tech has also had some problems on their punt team in
recent years. The Hokies had a punt blocked against Miami this past season, and
although they still won the game, it could have turned out to be disastrous,
because Miami only had to drive ten yards for their only TD of the game after
the punt block. Tech has also had punts blocked by Florida State in the 2000
Sugar Bowl and 2002 Gator Bowl. Not to mention Vinnie Burns’ bad habit of
dropping snaps in the red zone, which contributed to Tech’s loss to NC State
last season and the Hokies’ loss to Syracuse in 2001.
The once proud special teams units at Virginia Tech have
been shooting themselves in the foot recently. Missed kicks, blocked punts, and
dropped snaps have all contributed to losing football games. It feels as if special teams have been losing more games for
Tech recently than winning.
Right now, this is a C+ unit. The Hokies have a
chance to be a great field goal kicking team and a great kick returning team. If
Nic Schmitt can get consistent, he can be an excellent punter. But Tech has to
prove that they are back to their 1990s form and start winning some games with
special teams before they can receive a higher grade.