defining characteristic of Virginia Tech football, to the casual national
college fan, is special teams. The reputation of good special teams play
precedes the Hokies, and Beamerball has become synonymous with opportunistic,
field position based football. Unfortunately, however, the production has not
matched the substance as VT as significantly fallen off in this area in recent
The most problematic of areas is the placekicking position. Since back
problems limited Carter Warley after a solid debut in 2000, the placekicking
slot has been a nightmare for the Hokies. Missed kicks have contributed directly
to several losses (Syracuse in 2002, Cal last year), and indirectly in several
other contests where Coach Beamer chose to punt or go on fourth down rather than
risk a long (40+ yards) field goal.
Right now, VT has four candidates for its placekicking spot, but the leader
is R-SO Brandon Pace. Beamer has praised Pace for kicking quickly and getting
good distance. What he has lacked thus far is consistency in practice. There is
also (of course) the element of transitioning practice success to the game. Pace
has not kicked a regular season field goal yet, and it does not inspire
confidence in the Hokie faithful that he wasnít given a chance last year
against Cal with Warley obviously struggling.
The second string kicker is scholarship recipient R-SO Nic Schmitt. Schmitt
is a jumbo kicker, weighing somewhere in the 260 range, and he has a leg. After
being a highly touted recruit, he struggled as a backup to Warley as a true
freshman and redshirted last year to work on his mechanics. Beamerís comments
make it sound like Schmitt is more likely destined for punting duties than
The other two candidates for the place kicking job are R-FR Judd Dunlevy and
T-FR Jared Develli. Neither figures to win the job this year, but they do
provide some competition and depth in case Pace and/or Schmitt falter.
The kickoff duties are as not settled either, but Develli, a recruited
walk-on, is certainly turning some heads. He may have the strongest leg of any
of the candidates, and with the difficulty the kickoff coverage had last year
starting the opposing team at the 20 yard line, sounds like a solid plan to me.
Schmitt and Dunlevy (in that order) both could win this job, but my guess is
that Develli will end up being the guy.
Although it is far too early to know who will be on the kickoff coverage
team, I have to believe that VT will be more solid in the area than it was last
year. There are simply too many good young athletes on the defensive side of the
ball for VT to continue to struggle with kick coverage. With the Hokiesí
linebacker depth, expect to see a lot of whip/backer types on the coverage
teams. Incoming freshman like Kent Hicks also appears to have great kickoff
coverage measurables and could figure in prominently.
for punting, Vinnie Burns is a senior returning starter. Burns has also suffered
from inconsistency; he looked good early last year, but struggled as the year
progressed. Burns will never have an enormous average (last year he had a 39.8
average on 57 punts) because VT believes in directional kicking, but sacrificing
distance only makes sense if the coverage is solid.
Backing up Burns is VTís all purpose kicker Schmitt. Nic seems to have
found a home as the heir apparent at punter. He looked great in the spring game
as he combined distance and height. Again, consistency (and direction) seems to
be his issue. Obviously, though, punters have more leeway in that regard than
kickers, which is why Schmitt may fit long term better at punter than
placekicker, the position for which he was originally recruited.
As for punt and kick returners, this season should be very interesting and
competitive. With respect to punt returns, T-JR Jimmy Williams looked very
capable in the spring game. He is a tremendous athlete and could certainly do
the job; the emergence of R-FR Roland Minor as a viable backup boundary corner
also may permit Jimmy to be used here.
Other candidates include R-SR Richard Johnson, who has experience but has not
consistently demonstrated breakaway potential, and T-JR Mike Imoh, who would
seem to be a great candidate but has reportedly struggled at times catching
incoming recruits could figure in here as well, with Eddie Royal and Jeremy
Gilchrest being the most likely (particularly Royal). Eddie is simply too good
to sit, and he may take some time to learn the wide receiver sets, so punt
returns would be a logical place for him to get some touches early in the
The overriding concern for Coach Beamer with any of the candidates, however,
will be ball security. If they donít catch the ball, they wonít be back
there. Ultimately, I think Royal wins the job if he catches the ball
Kickoff returns traditionally have been handled by backup tailbacks, and Imoh
will be back there once his three game suspension has been served. Imoh averaged
over 30 yards per return last year, including one touchdown, and heís got a
great mix of moves, strength and speed. Heís dangerous in space.
The other spot is not as certain. My guess is that Royal joins Imoh back
there to form a dynamite return tandem. One benefit of having similar type
returners is that the guys upfront can adequately time their blocking schemes
(i.e., you can expect Imoh and Royal to hit the seam at roughly the same time;
such was not the case with Humes and Imoh last year). However, historically
Coach Beamer is not afraid to take slightly slower, larger running backs and
place them on kickoff return duty as well.
While Imoh is out, look for backup wide receivers (Josh Morgan, Robert
Parker, David Clowney) to also get some reps at kick returner. If Brandon Ore
doesnít take the Ďshirt, he could also get a look back there, much like Lee
Suggs did early in his career.
I am cautiously optimistic about the kicking game this year. Pace, Schmitt
and Burns all went to a kicking camp this summer and did well. I think Pace may
be ready to step up. The Hokies could play 4-5 games this year within a
touchdown, and heíll have to make some big kicks (particularly in the swirling
winds in Lane) for the Hokies to have a solid season. State, Maryland, West
Virginia and Virginia are all potentially winnable home games, but they are the
types of games that VT has lost in the past two years.
Burns seems to be on target for a solid senior season, and I like what Iím
hearing about Develliís leg strength as a kickoff candidate. The athletes are
there for coverage to be outstanding, and I expect improvement from both groups.
The return candidates are, for the most part, young, fast and talented. Many
of them are fighting for playing time, which could lead to a little extra
anxiety early in the year. Much like VTís backup tailbacks try to ďimpressĒ
with their touches, leading to some fumblitis (see KJ two years ago and Humes
last year), the youngsters will have to be particularly cognizant of ball
Coaching is also going to be important this year. Coach Beamer has done a
great job schematically with his Pride and Joy unit (punt block), but heís
going to have to coach up the coverage guys. He also may need to reevaluate his
kickoff strategy of placing the ball inside the 5. While thatís fine in some
cases, the fact is that with the talent available returning kickoffs in the ACC
you are playing with fire by regularly kicking deep. If Develli can crank it 10
yards deep, that would be my preference. Iíll take my chances with the other
team having to go 80 yards, rather than giving them a chance to return a kick
with the best case scenario for VT being a stop at the 15, and the worst case
being . . . never mind.
Coach Beamer calls special teams one-third of the game. With the amount of
practice time, effort, talent and resources (Burns, Schmitt and punt/kick
snapper Travis Conway, a R-SR, all have scholarships) spent here, this is
one-third of the game that VT must win every week.