By Dave Glenn and staff, ACC Sports Journal
December 2, 2002 BLACKSBURG Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer is a mild-mannered guy. He's quick with a smile, always cordial to the spoiled Hokie faithful and has no problems utilizing the self-deprecating humor card. For a good giggle, see his references to his blazing speed as a Hokies defensive back from 1966-68. However, there's one sure way to rattle his cage, one can't-miss method of getting under his skin. The Hokies' special teams units are his babies. He personally oversees and coaches all of them. Attack any phase of Virginia Tech's special teams, and you'll see a man get defensive. Then again, it's not as if his kickoff return team hasn't deserved some criticism this season.
The most troubling of Virginia Tech's 2002 special teams deficiencies
has been an inability to keep the offense from having to work with its back
against the wall to start drives. Kickoff
returns have long been a weak spot for the Hokies' otherwise-sturdy special teams package.
In the 2000 season, the Hokies averaged 18.9 yards per kick return. Last season, they averaged 19.9 yards. This season, the average dipped to 17.9 yards through 11 games, which put the Hokies 105th out of 117 Division I-A teams.
Virginia Tech's average starting field position following kickoffs through 11 games was the 26-yard line. That's a bit of a misleading stat when you consider that half of the Hokies' 40 kickoff returns put the team with a starting position at or inside the 20.
Now, you may be asking, What's the big deal? Miami's average starting field position following kickoffs through its first 10 games was the 25-yard line. What do you have to say about that one, smart guy? Well, with a quarterback like Ken Dorsey, receivers like Andre Johnson and Kellen Winslow, an all-purpose back like Willis McGahee and one of the nation's most quickly improving offensive lines, Miami can start just about anywhere on the field and score.
It's not the same story at Virginia Tech, where quarterback Bryan Randall made crucial mistakes on long drives, tailback Kevin Jones missed games with a hamstring injury and the Hokies' offensive line gave up 29 sacks in 11 games.
It's considered a great honor to be a member of one of the special teams units for the Hokies. It's where Beamer traditionally has put his best athletes. That's why starters such as Jones, defensive ends Nathaniel Adibi and Cols Colas, linebacker Vegas Robinson and split end Ernest Wilford play on the punt and punt block/return teams, which are referred to in Hokie circles as the Pride and Joy teams. Virginia Tech blocked six kicks and had one punt blocked through 11 games.
Special teams is a very important part of this team, and we take a lot of pride in it, Adibi said. In games where we know field position is going to be real important, Coach Beamer wants to have the most experienced players and the ones he can depend on the most out on the field.
But it's a different story on the kickoff return team. None of the Hokies' defensive, offensive or special teams units are as young and inexperienced as the kickoff return, which includes four redshirt freshmen, three sophomores and a true freshman. Before senior tailback Lee Suggs started returning kickoffs in an effort to help get those extra five or 10 yards that could shorten drives, sophomore Richard Johnson handled the duties, averaging 18.1 yards.
There's no question that blending youth and experience in an often overlooked facet of the game is difficult. Perhaps the dark side of the fine line between having too much youth on a team (the Hokies are composed of 70 percent freshmen, redshirt freshmen and sophomores this season) and not playing enough of the young players is being best illustrated on Virginia Tech's kickoff return team.
How much is too much youth? At some point, a coach has to give his offensive and defensive starters a break, but at what price?
It's hard, said senior Lamar Cobb, who plays in Virginia Tech's defensive end rotation and on the Hokies' kickoff team. He also has participated on kickoff return, extra point and field goal block teams in the past. It's extra running, especially in practice. A lot of people get that period (in practice) off, but we keep running. You just have to understand that special teams is such an integral part of the game, especially when teams are evenly matched. It always comes down to field position. Who's got the better field position is important. You can gain that advantage on special teams. Frank Beamer has sold us on that. It's just a sacrifice you have to make.
Fatigue does play a role when a coach uses a lot of starters in special teams play. Adibi recalled the 50-42 loss at Syracuse in three overtimes, where he had to play about 60 snaps (nearly double his normal load). In that game, the Orangemen broke through the Hokies' front to get a hand on a punt by Vinnie Burns. Was it just a coverage breakdown? Maybe so. Did fatigue play a factor on the punt team, which had five offensive and defensive starters lined up along the front against Syracuse? It's possible.
From my standpoint, being a defensive lineman, I usually don't run more than five or six yards, Cobb said. Then, when I have to sprint 80 on special teams, it takes a little wind out of you. It's worth it if I can stop them inside the 20.
To call Virginia Tech's special teams units the root of all evil in its struggles this season would be incorrect. Special teams had nothing to do with a run defense that was surprisingly porous at all the wrong times. Special teams couldn't cure the injuries, or stop Jones and Randall from fumbling the ball on offense.
Yet, with optimal field position being a major issue for a young team trying to build confidence, inconsistent kickoff returns didn't help. Maybe if Virginia Tech hadn't had to start half of its drives at or inside the 20, thus sparing the offense an extra two or three plays on the field, all would've been right in Hokie nation.
Sometimes, it's the little things that make all the difference. Those little things are usually Beamer's specialty, but not this season.