Virginia Tech’s special teams have flown somewhat under the radar this season, but those units may be the most important reason the Hokies are 2-0.
Against West Virginia, the Hokies’ defense allowed nearly 600 total yards of offense, while Tech’s offense racked up just 469 yards of offense. But, West Virginia scored just 24 points.
One of the biggest reasons? The Mountaineers didn’t start a single possession further down the field than their own 27-yard-line. On average, West Virginia started at their 21.3-yard-line vs. the Hokies.
Against Delaware, it was much of the same. The Blue Hens were consistently forced to drive the length of the field, something they were unable to do. Delaware finished with just five total return yards, and started outside of their own 27-yard-line just once.
Hidden yardage isn’t the only reason the Hokies are 2-0, but it’s a big reason.
“When I look at our football squad, I think we have to do all the little things correctly to give ourselves a chance to win,” said head coach Justin Fuente. “Part of that is because of our youth, part of it is because the people we’re going to play. We’re going to play quality people that have other good players as well. For a long time, that’s been a formula for winning football. I think we’re going to play in close football games, week in and week out. Doing the little things, in all three phases, but in special teams is the one time you’re dealing with large chunks of yardage.
“Again, we talked about the big, game-altering plays, the big punt return by Greg (Stroman), and those things are obviously fantastic, but through the course of the game, you get multiple opportunities to chip away at that, kind of hidden yardage. I think it’s paramount for us to have a chance to win or have success. We’re going to have to give ourselves every opportunity.”
The coaches have made the “hidden yardage” battle a point of emphasis in team meetings. With Virginia Tech breaking in young players on offense, any advantage the Hokies can get is beneficial.
“It’s talked about so much,” said special teams coordinator James Shibest. “I know in the first game, we hadn’t really compared it in the last game as much, but we gained about 80 yards through the net punting of the first game, and that was critical when you get in tight games like that.”
Freshman punter Oscar Bradburn is a key contributor to the Hokies winning that hidden yardage battle. Bradburn has punted 13 times in just two games for Virginia Tech, averaging 46.2 yards per punt. Five of Bradburn’s punts have been downed inside the opponent’s 20-yard-line.
“He’s done a really good job,” Fuente said. “We’re really proud of him in the first two weeks. He’s getting the ball off on good get-off time, we’re hanging the ball up there. We will sacrifice a little bit of yardage for more hangtime, to make it a little bit easier to cover those punts.”
It hasn’t been easy for Bradburn. He arrived from Australia in January to enroll at Virginia Tech, and was immediately counted on to start this season. So far, he’s making the transition.
“It’s been nerve-wracking to start with, I thought,” Bradburn said. “But, I’ve come a long way since I think we last spoke about it. So far, I’m really enjoying what I’m doing out there, and I’ve been confident in what I’ve been achieving out there as well, and finding consistency and stuff.”
Adjusting to the speed of the game has been the biggest challenge. Fortunately for Bradburn, his experience at Prokick Australia has prepared him. He says that at Prokick, the target time from the end of the snap to getting the punt off was 1.25 seconds, with an overall get-off time of two seconds. Virginia Tech expects him to be under the two-second mark as well, and he’s getting there so far.
“The biggest shock for me was probably the urgency of everything out there,” Bradburn said. “It’s a very rapid pace, and you’ve got to be attentive the whole time, or otherwise you’ll miss things for sure. Other than that, I’ve been really well-prepared by all of my coaches with what to expect when I go out there.”
Hitting his hangtime targets has been a focus. Virginia Tech’s coaches have emphasized that Bradburn needs to focus on hangtime instead of yardage, something that’s been a little more of an adjustment.
“Yeah, last week they were stressing to me they want the ball probably higher, but in that 40-45-yard range,” Bradburn said. “In the game, I hit two 49 yards straight away, so I sort of went against their word, but they were both fair caught I’m pretty sure, so they can’t be too disappointed with that. As long as the coverage gets down there, that plays with that, as long as I get enough hang under it.”
Tackling has also been something Bradburn has been getting used to. It’s different from tackling in Aussie Rules football, but Bradburn also worked on this at Prokick. And at his first practice at Virginia Tech, Bradburn got plenty of work in tackling drills.
“The style is a bit different than what I’m used to, so it’ll be interesting to see what happens if the returner ever gets down there close to me,” Bradburn said.
Even if a returner gets to Bradburn, which hasn’t happened all season, he sounds confident he’ll make the play.
“Oh no, I’ll deck him straight away. It’ll be fine. I’ll put him on his a–,” Bradburn said.