Position Preview – Special Teams

Welcome to our 2020 Football Season Preview. To view our preview table of contents and read already-completed pieces, click here or on the Series button above.

 

We don’t talk a ton about special teams, but deep down we know how critical they are. They’re a huge driver of “hidden yards,” affecting the critical field position battle for both teams and providing crucial points in tight games. Let’s see what the unit looks like after the offseason.

 

Position Coach

Ricky Brumfield – VirginiaSports.com Bio

 

Who’s Gone?

Joe Reed (KOR) – One of the greatest return men in UVA history, second in ACC history with 6 career kickoff return scores, Reed leaves giant shoes to fill in the KOR game as he takes his talents to the NFL.

Seneca Milledge (KOR) – Dismissed over the winter, Milledge had showed promise when filling in at KOR for Joe Reed in the Liberty game.

Enzo Anthony (LS) – As a freshman, Anthony long-snapped on all of UVA’s punts last year. He elected to transfer to Virginia Tech this offseason.

 

 

Who’s Back?

Punters

Nash Griffin (P) – Senior (R) – As a redshirt junior last year, Griffin took over for the graduated Lester Coleman and handled punt duties throughout the season, averaging a pretty average 42 yards a punt. He’ll handle the punting duties again this fall.

Brendan Farrell (P) – Freshman (R) – Ranked the #67 placekicker and #60 punter out of high school by Kohl’s Kicking Service, Farrell is interning behind Griffin for one final season before having the inside track to earn the starting job next season.

 

 

Kickers

Brian Delaney (PK) – Senior – He eased into the job as a sophomore, handling kickoff duties and splitting responsibilities on field goals and XPs in 2018. But he largely thrived as a junior when give the full time placekicking job, finishing 4th in the ACC with an 83% completion rate (20 of 24) on the season, though he did inexplicably miss a pair of XPs on the season. He also finished 4th in the ACC in touchback rate at 67%. He’ll once again be trusted with all PK responsibilities this season. He’s been named to the preseason watch list for the Lou Groza award for the best PK in college football.

AJ Mejia (PK) – Junior (R) – AJ jumped into a major role as a true freshmen in 2017, making all 37 of his XPs and going 8 of 12 on FGs. But as a sophomore, he sputtered out of the gate, making only 1 of 4 FGs in the early part of the season before Brian Delaney solidified the job. Last season he was used exclusively as an on-side kick specialist.

Hunter Pearson (PK) – Sophomore (R) – Ranked the #10 place kicker nationally out of HS by Kohl’s Kicking Service, Pearson stepped into reserve action as a true freshman in 2018, going 2/2 on FGs and 6/6 on XPs filling in for Delaney. He redshirted this past season, but will look to compete for the 2nd string job this year and a future starting job. Kohl’s considered him potentially the best kickoff guy in his class.

Justin Duenkel (K) – Freshman (R) – The lone kicker other than Delaney to place kick last season, Duenkel came on late in the Duke blowout to make an extra point. A former Virginia HS 2x all-state and DC all-Metro kicker, arguably with a stronger leg than Delaney, he will press for 2nd string duties this year in hopes to win the starting job next year.

 

 

Snappers

Lee Dudley (LS) – Sophomore (R) – Dudley, after a quiet redshirt year, took over for the graduated Joe Spaziani last season and cemented himself as the team’s long-snapper on both field goals and extra points. Dudley is expected to continue this job for the rest of his UVA career, and will also compete for punt-team long snapper responsibilities this year.

Tucker Finkleston (LS) – Sophomore (R) – The walk-on missed 2019 with an injury but, if healthy, will compete for the vacated punt-team long snapper job.

 

Returners

Tavares Kelly (KOR) – Junior – Tavares was 2nd on last year’s depth chart on kickoff returns behind the All American Joe Reed. He returned 8 kickoffs last year, primarily against Georgia Tech when Joe Reed was limited, for a season average of 22.4 yards a return.

Billy Kemp (PR) – Junior – Kemp handled the vast majority of punt return duties in 2019, taking over for Chuck Davis and returning 22 kicks on the year for an average of 6.0 yards a return, none going the distance.

Perris Jones (KOR) – Sophomore (R) – While the recruited walk-on running back has yet to log a kickoff return at UVA, he has been listed on the KOR depth chart a couple of times in his career alongside Joe Reed, and could be in competition as, at a minimum, the position alternate.

 

Who’s New?

Shane Simpson (KOR/PR) – Senior (R) – A 6th year grad transfer running back from Towson, Simpson was one of the best kick returners at the FCS level for years before an injury cut his 2019 season short. In his 35 career games at Towson, Simpson handled both kickoff and punt return responsibilities. On punts, he has 27 career returns for a 6.7 yards per return average. On kickoffs, he has 84 career returns for a 24.8 yards per return average with 2 career KOR touchdowns. In 2018 he was the CAA 2nd team KOR and 3rd team PR.

D’Angelo Amos (KOR/PR) – Senior (R) – Amos is a graduate transfer from JMU added after the Dukes cancelled their fall season. Amos was the best punt returner in FCS, an first team all American two years in a row with 5 career punt return TDs. He projects to claim the starting punt return job immediately.

Danny Caracciolo (LS) – Senior (R) – A walk-on grad transfer, Caracciolo is a Fairfax native who had pevious stops at JMU and Bryant. At Bryant, he did not see any game action, but as a redshirt freshman at JMU in 2017 did serve as the team’s primary punt team long-snapper, and will have a shot to earn those duties this year with Enzo Anthony gone.

Demick Starling (KOR/PR) – Freshman – The rookie speedster wideout from Tennessee arrives with a good reputation for kick returns coming out of high school. I think he absolutely will handle either kickoffs or punts for us for a long chunk of his career, but while he could see an outside shot to make the depth chart at one of the return positions immediately, most likely the Simpson transfer buys him a redshirt year.

 

Preseason MVP

Brian Delaney – How important is it to have a placekicker you can trust? I want you to think back to Delaney lining up for that 47-yarder against Tech with the game tied and 1:37 left on the clock. He misses that and Tech gets a short field to attack for a game-winning FG of their own. And what does Delaney do? Split the uprights with distance to spare. A reliable kicker will show up in the win column at least once or twice a season as the difference maker in a close game, and we should be thrilled to get one more season out of Brian this year.

 

Breakout Candidate

Tavares Kelly – Hard to tab most of these players as breakouts as positions are staffed with a well-established veteran starter. But one specialist position is wide open, kickoff return, and while asking anyone to fill Joe Reed’s shoes is silly at this stage, Kelly showed well in his limited opportunities last year; his per-return-average would’ve ranked him 6th in the ACC if he’d registered a qualifying number of returns. There’s reason to believe that with a little extra practice here, and a little extra comfort from increased game reps, he could be a top-half KOR in the ACC this year and next.

 

A Stab at the Opening Day Depth Chart

PK

Brian Delaney (Sr)

Hunter Pearson (RS So)

Justin Duenkel (RS Fr)

P

Nash Griffin (RS Sr)

Brendan Farrell (RS Fr)

LS

Lee Dudley (RS So)

Tucker Finkleston (RS So)

KOR

Tavares Kelly

Shane Simpson

PR

D’Angelo Amos

Billy Kemp

 

Grade: B+

 

Final Thoughts

Placekicking – This is one area we can feel pretty comfortable this season, with more stability than in any other special teams phase. We return Brian Delaney who was a Top-Third league kicker in FG%, and we also return our promising young FG long-snapper. Confidence level (out of 5): 5

Punting and Punt Coverage – Nash Griffin is a pretty reliable punter. He doesn’t have the world’s most booming leg, a little below average in the ACC last year at around 42 yards a punt, but he’s steady. After that, the results are a little high-low. The good is that the unit finished 3rd in the ACC in non-return rate (fair catches, downed balls, or touchbacks) at 82%. The bad is that of the few punts opponents did return, the Hoos were 2nd-worst in the league in average return yardage, allowing almost 13 yards a return. Better tackling will need to be an area of focus this year. Also, with Enzo Anthony’s departure, the Hoos will need to break in a new long-snapper. Confidence level (out of 5): 3.

Kickoffs and Kickoff Coverage – Some things to like here. With Delaney’s return, we largely know what we’re getting. Virginia was 4th in the ACC in touchback rate last year, which is great. However, on non-touchbacks, UVA’s coverage unit finished 2nd-to-last in the league on yards per return (nearly 25), something that must improve this season. Delaney also finished T-2nd on KO’s out of bounds, another area for targeted improvement. Confidence level (out of 5): 4

Punt Returns – The stability of bringing back a sure-handed Kemp is nice, but his yards-per-return numbers put UVA at a mere 11th in the ACC in return average, and UVA honestly wasn’t that scary here at first. But the special teams scored a coup with the addition of Amos, who is a threat to take every punt return to the house. For the first time in many years, Virginia could have a competent punt return game. Confidence level (out of 5): 4

Kickoff Returns – Virginia led the league last year in KO Return yardage average and touchdowns, all primarily on the legs of Joe Reed. He’s gone, as is his most impressive young sucessor in Milledge. Tavares Kelly is the next man up, and he’s got the speed. Interestingly enough, his 22.4 yards per return average was better than 10 ACC team’s combined average, so there’s some reason for optimism we can be a plus team here again this year, if not elite like we were with Reed. Simpson provides excellent competition at the position, with his 24.8 career return average and 2 career TDs at the FCS level. Confidence level (out of 5): 4