Cavs retool special teams
Kicking game features fresh faces; sophomore returners expect improvement
The Virginia football team’s New Year’s Eve loss to Auburn in the Chick-fil-A Bowl was a good summation of everything that went wrong for the special teams unit in 2011. The group was erratic and undisciplined at times despite possessing considerable potential, and in the final game against the Tigers, the unit committed a comedy of errors to cost the Cavaliers any chance of keeping the 43-24 blowout close.
In one of the most anticipated games in program history, Virginia was done in by two blocked punts, a lost fumble, a successful Auburn onside kick attempt and a failed fake field goal attempt of its own. The special teams unit gave away two points on a blocked punt that resulted in a safety in the third quarter, and then allowed the Tigers to return the ensuing punt 62 yards to set up another score.
With all that went awry in 2011, it seemed likely that the special teams failings would be one of coach Mike London’s primary concerns during the offseason. But if the reigning ACC Coach of the Year is nervous about that unit, he is not letting it show.
“I wouldn’t characterize it as apprehensive,” London said of his outlook for the unit before going on to laud the offseason improvements he believes have been made.
Virginia has several playmakers who possess the speed, strength and field vision to thrive as kick returners. Last season their potential did not always translate into results. The Cavaliers finished ninth in the ACC in punt return average and fourth in kickoff return average, failing to find the end zone on any runback.
Sophomore wide receivers Dominique Terrell and Darius Jennings will return to starting roles at punt and kick returner, respectively, where each had mixed results. Terrell led the Cavaliers with 14 punt returns for 61 yards and Jennings averaged 20.0 yards on a team-high 30 kickoff returns.
Both played have struggled with decision-making and handling kicks cleanly in the past.
“Darius Jennings, who [returned kickoffs] last year, has gotten better at that,” London said. “If you watch practice over the last few weeks, he has a much better understanding.”
With both returners penciled in as starting wideouts, London hopes the added comfort with the speed of the college game will facilitate their improvement on special teams. For Terrell, the primary challenge will be limiting the fumbles and bobbles that cost the Cavaliers field position on several occasions last season.
“Punt return, obviously, I think we’ve done a tremendous job improving from — everyone understands and saw what happened last year — but Dominique Terrell has made remarkable steps in improving his whole overall technique of it,” London said.
Robert Randolph was as close to a game-changer as any kicker in college football for the first two weeks of the 2011 season. The then-senior nailed all eight of his field goal attempts, including the game-winner against Indiana in a 34-31 win.
Randolph struggled somewhat down the stretch, however, missing seven of his final 15 kicks.
This fall junior Drew Jarrett beat out redshirt freshman Ian Frye to replace Randolph as the starting place kicker, though Frye will handle kickoff duties.
“I’d say overall we’ve come a long way since the beginning of camp,” Jarrett said of himself and Frye. “But we’ve got a lot to work on.”
Jarrett played in eight games in 2009, making all 17 of his extra points, but was beaten out the past two seasons by Randolph. Jarrett redshirted in 2010 and was left off the roster in 2011 but remained at the University. After impressing coaches during training camp, Jarrett will have the opportunity to lock down the field goal kicking job.
London plans to give the strong-legged Jarrett, who made a career-long 54-yard field goal in high school, a long leash as he adjusts to the pressure of kicking at the collegiate level.
“It’s important that when we evaluate that this guy is going to get it done, that we go with him and find out what he can do,” London said.
In 2011, the Cavaliers finished 11th in the ACC in net yards per punt with then-senior Jimmy Howell handling the punting duties. Sophomore Alec Vozenilek will be the team’s new punter. Special teams coordinator Anthony Poindexter and London have been working diligently to hash out a strategy to improve on the 2011 numbers, toying with a number of different techniques to find one which best utilizes Vozenilek’s capabilities.
“Alec had some good days, and he had some bad ones. But he’s moving in the right direction,” Poindexter said.
The Cavaliers relied heavily last year on what London calls a “rugby” style kick that produces a line drive directed toward one sideline helping the coverage unit prevent returns. Howell mixed and matched the rugby kicks and high booming punts with moderate success. London would not commit to a designated number for each type of punt this season.
“We have to explore all those things and say how we can best effect our team,” London said. “But I would say right now that, if anything, we want to be more consistent in punting, getting it downfield and providing hangtime, because that’s one certain way to flip the field position in a heartbeat.”
London’s hope for the kickoff unit is simple: send the ball so deep into the opponent’s end zone that the opposing return man has to think twice before bringing it out. Last season Virginia finished seventh in the ACC with seven touchbacks.
In Frye, London thinks he has found the type of powerful leg that can drive the ball far past the goal line with regularity. If Frye’s high-school success translates when he makes his collegiate debut Saturday, he could provide just what London is looking for this season. Playing for Virginia High School in Bristol, Va., the 6-foot-6 punter notched touchbacks on 95 percent of his kickoffs.
“He has got a good, strong leg for a long lanky guy like that,” London said. “He’s putting it back there five to seven yards deep. It will be interesting to see how teams will respond to where that ball is kicked.”
This is the third in a four-part series previewing the 2012 Virginia football team. An analysis of the full depth chart will run Thursday, Aug. 30.