Most football fans focus on offensive and defensive stars, but coaches frequently stress the importance of special teams.
Good kicking, kick coverage and kick returns can be the difference between winning and losing, especially at the collegiate level.
A season ago, Virginia excelled on special teams. Nash Griffin gave the team a quality punter. Brian Delaney was reliable at the kicker position. Most notably, Joe Reed offered elite production at the kick returner position.
While Reed graduated and finds himself on an NFL roster, the Cavaliers return plenty of critical key special teams pieces. For a team with some questions offensively but a solid defense, the special teams unit could prove critical the next time UVa takes the field.
Let’s take a closer look at what the Cavaliers bring to the table in the third phase of the game.
UVa returns both its kicking specialists from a season ago.
Griffin returns as the team’s punter, while Delaney will be the placekicker. Interestingly, UVa special teams coach Ricky Brumfield expects Delaney to compete for the punting duties when the team returns to practice.
“Nash was the guy last year and he did a great job and he very well can be the guy again this year, but Delaney is on a mission to try to take over punts as well,” Brumfield said.
That’s likely music to Bronco Mendenhall’s ears, as the head coach loves competition and depth within his roster.
Unseating Griffin won’t be easy for Delaney. Griffin booted the ball 57 times last season with an average punt of 41.9 yards to go with 24 punts ending up inside the opponent’s 20-yard line. Griffin blasted a 78-yard punt against Louisville and hit six punts over 50 yards.
As a placekicker, Delaney is 32-of-40 on field goal attempts across the past two seasons with a long of 49 yards. He also serves as the team’s primary kickoff specialist.
Billy Kemp IV returned 23 punts a season ago, and he’s the leading candidate to secure the punt returner role in 2020.
“Billy is a really good, confident punt returner,” Brumfield said. “He has that swag, that confidence and that maturity.”
Tavares Kelly Jr. should be in the mix as a returner as well.
Joe Reed is the most glaring departure. Reed ended his collegiate career as one of the most productive kickoff returners ever. He posted his best season as a returner last year, averaging an impressive 33.2 yards per return. Two of his 24 returns went for touchdowns.
“There’s no replacing Joe Reed,” Brumfield said. “Joe Reed is one of a kind, and there probably will never be a Joe Reed at UVa again.”
UVa can’t replace Reed’s elite production, but it has to put someone back deep to return kicks. Brumfield believes Tavares Kelly Jr. has an early lead at the position, but there will likely be a competition for the role.
Seneca Milledge was expected to compete at the position, but he left UVa.
Demick Starling is a freshman wide receiver with a track background. While Starling likely won’t compete for the kick or punt returning job in 2020, he’s a player with potential to become a special teams contributor.
The Cavaliers also added Ra’Shaun Henry as a graduate transfer from St. Francis. While he didn’t return kicks at St. Francis, he runs well and possesses good size. He returned kicks in high school and could compete for time as a returner during his one season in Charlottesville.
At kicker and punter, the outlook is bright. At kickoff returner and punt returner, there’s some experience, but the game-changing production of Joe Reed is gone.
For UVa’s special teams unit to be one of the best in the ACC, the Cavaliers need players to step up in the return game.