Teel Time: Improving historically weak special teams critical for Virginia Tech during spring

Virginia Tech won 11 games and the ACC’s Coastal Division last football season in large measure by dramatically upgrading its most glaring deficiency: run defense.

The Hokies allowed 4.7 yards per rush in 2010, their worst ever under Frank Beamer. They yielded a mere 3.2 last year.

Tech’s challenge in 2012 is to author similar improvement for another program perennial: special teams.

“There’s no question last year was a rugged year for us in the kicking game overall,” Beamer said Monday, 48 hours before the Hokies’ opening spring practice. “There (were) some bright spots. But we didn’t kick the ball great, and as a result weren’t as consistent as we needed to be there.

“We had a couple roughing-the-kicker penalties, and that’s uncalled for. So overall, it just wasn’t as good a year as we expect around here. And that’s going to be a priority here this spring.”

Beamer’s assessment is charitable. Special teams, which he oversees, were historically weak last season.

Tech’s lone blocked kick was a punt in the opener against Appalachian State, making 2011 the first of Beamer’s 25 seasons in which the Hokies did not block a punt, field goal or extra point against a Division I-A (Bowl Subdivision) opponent.

The most kicks Tech has blocked in a season under Beamer? An astonishing 12: eight punts, two field goal and two PATs in 1998, all against I-A competition.

As more teams have employed the bubble protection on punts, the Hokies' blocks have declined. They've had 12 in the last five seasons combined, half of them punts.

Last season the Hokies ranked 108th among 120 teams nationally in net punting, last in the ACC, hardly a surprise given the revolving door at the position – Michael Branthover, Scott Demler and receiver Danny Coale all punted at least 15 times. NCAA stat archives date to 1999, and 108th is Tech’s worst net punting in those 13 years.

The Hokies tied for 93rd in kickoff returns -- their only lower finish was 105th in 2007. The lone encouraging note was a No. 30 standing in punt returns, thanks to Jayron Hosley.

First-year kicker Cody Journell made 14-of-17 field goals and 43-of-44 PATs, but jeopardized his career with a breaking-and-entering arrest prior to the Sugar Bowl against Michigan. He was suspended indefinitely before the bowl and remains away from the program.

I asked Beamer if Journell might return.

“We’re going to wait and see what his (legal) developments are before any decision is made in that regard,” he said.

Translation: If Journell’s lawyer can get the charge reduced from felony to misdemeanor, his client, might kick again for the Hokies. Journell was the program’s first recruited scholarship kicker since Shayne Graham in 1996.

Justin Myer, who remarkably made four field goals during regulation of the Sugar Bowl loss before missing in overtime, was a senior. So was Coale, who punted against Michigan.

“We’ll spend a lot of time on special teams,” Beamer said. “What I want to do this spring is get a good evaluation of the kickers that are here. … Then we’ve got a couple kids coming in in the fall that I think certainly have an opportunity.”

Returning punters and kickers include Branthover and Conor Goulding, who top the depth chart at those respective positions entering spring. There’s also punters Demler and Ethan Keyserling, and kicker Skyler Hutchinson, a redshirt freshman from Hampton High.

“I’ve always said, it’s the quickest way to win a football game,” Beamer said of special teams. “But the other side of it is, if you’re not successful, it gets to going the other way, too.”

Case in point, a roughing penalty in the ACC title game loss to Clemson and botched fake punt against Michigan.

At the time, Beamer said the Sugar Bowl setback, which included a replay reversal of a Coale touchdown catch in overtime, made him “about half sick.”

“I think it’s one of the tougher losses we’ve had, really,” he said Monday. “A game you felt like you had it going your way and just didn’t quite get it done, or just didn’t end that way. And then to have the catch taken away and have so much talked about that.

“It’s one of those things I think you learn from and the next time, don’t let it get in the officials’ hands. We had a chance on third-and-1 (in overtime) and jumped offsides. We execute and get things done, we probably don’t put it in the officials’ hands. That’s the biggest I’m going to take from this: ‘Let’s take care of things ourselves. Don’t put it in the officials’ hands to determine the outcome.’”

One way to accomplish that is to take care of upgrading the special teams.

I can be reached at 247-4636 or by e-mail at dteel@dailypress.com. Follow me at twitter.com/DavidTeelatDP

Here’s a link to my Daily Press print columns.

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