Welcome back to our 2018 Football Season Preview. In this installment, we're tackling the Kickers, Punters, and Returners position group.
There's very little turnover in the featured special teams positions. At kicker, reserve Andrew King has exhausted his eligibility and moved on. The punter position saw no turnover. The only loss of consequence is found among the returners in running back Daniel Hamm. Hamm was the third leading kick returner and only player to return a punt for the Hoos last season.
The Hoos return both their place kicker and kickoff specialist from last season.
AJ Mejia - Sophomore - 5-8 175 pounds - Mejia was put in a tough spot last season. His range as a field goal kicker was rather limited as evidenced by his long of 38 yards. Despite those limitations, he still led the team in scoring with 61 points, 19 more than Jordan Ellis who was next highest. Mejia's perfect record on extra points, 37 for 37, was a bright spot especially since the team went through three different options the prior season while missing two extra points. Field goals, on the other hand, were not Mejia's strong suit. His accuracy, 8 for 12 or 66.7%, was a marked improvement over the 5 for 10 (50.0%) spread between two kickers the prior season, but was still only good for 83rd in FBS. His 12 attempts were also among the lowest in FBS for a team's full time place kicker. That Mejia went 0 for 4 on field goal attempts 40 yards or longer shows how much room for improvement exists in the field goal operation. The scant number of attempts and extremely limited range from Mejia were a constant strain on the entire offense.
Brian Delaney - Sophomore - 5-10 200 pounds - When Delaney was signed as a scholarship kicker out of Westfield High School in Chantilly, Virginia it was assumed that the Hoos had their kicker of the future. Alas, it was not meant to be, at least in 2017, as Delaney was not able to beat out walk on kicker AJ Mejia for the place kicking job. Delaney did win the job as the kickoff specialist, however. Delaney handled all but two of the kickoffs this past season for Virginia with Mejia and Andrew King each getting one chance. Delaney averaged 62.3 yards per kick in his 56 opportunities. He earned 20 touchbacks and kicked 2 balls out of bounds. There's no reason to think anyone but Delaney will handle the kickoff duties in 2018 but there are two wild cards to consider. The Hoos added a dedicated special teams coach in Ricky Brumfield when the NCAA allowed teams to hire a tenth full time coach. The NCAA also changed the kickoff rules to allow any fair catch within the 25 yard line to be considered a touchback which would give the receiving team the ball at the 25 yard line. It remains to be seen if Coach Brumfield has new ideas or plans and if the change in the kickoff rule elicits a creative approach to kickoffs that finds someone better suited to the job than Delaney.
Like the kicking positions, the incumbent punter also returns for UVA. An understudy also returns whose contributions to date have been at another, underappreciated position.
Lester Coleman - Senior - 6-5 245 pounds - Lester Coleman earned All ACC second team honors in 2017 in his first season of on field competition. In 75 punts, Coleman recorded 9 touchbacks, 14 fair catches, 29 punts inside the opponents' twenty, and had no punts blocked. He averaged 43.7 yards per punt and had a long of 63 yards. Coleman's 43.7 yards per punt average was good for 24th best in the country. Very few players have as solid a claim on a position as Coleman does heading into the 2018 season.
Nash Griffin - Sophomore - 6-2 225 pounds - To date, the Indianapolis native is best known as either Kyle Guy's BFF or the Hoos' holder on extra points and field goal attempts. Griffin was a preferred walk on at UVA so there's definitely talent there. He'll probably continue to serve as the holder while competing for the punter job after Coleman's departure following this season. UVA's roster also lists Griffin as a kicker so it's always possible that his future is there instead of as a punter.
The Hoos lose their only punt returner from 2017 but things look better at kick returner as an all-conference performer returns, a top offensive weapon is essentially the backup, and the only other player on the roster to record kick return yardage is back too.
Hasise Dubois - Junior - 6-3 215 pounds - Dubois recorded 32 kick return yards in 2017 so he's mostly here by default. With a new special teams coach on the staff, you never know for sure who will emerge in these roles. But Dubois isn't the explosive athlete you hope to have returning kicks.
Olamide Zaccheaus - Senior - 5-8 190 pounds - OZ, on the other hand, is arguably the most explosive offensive player on the roster. In 2017, he racked up 145 kick return yards which was good for second on the team. OZ is mostly limited by his size and extensive workload on offense. But the returning incumbent leader in kick return yardage is the largest limiting factor of OZ's influence here.
Joe Reed - Junior - 6-1 215 pounds - Reed, aka Secretariat, earned All ACC honorable mention honors as a kick returner in 2017. His two kickoff returns for touchdowns set the single season UVA record. The TD return against Georgia Tech gave the Hoos the needed momentum to complete a comeback that earned UVA bowl eligibility for the first time since Mike London's second season at the helm. The TD return against Navy to open the Military Bowl was the high point in the game for UVA. He finished the season with 861 kick return yards and will undoubtedly be UVA's top option in 2018.
Other players like Chuck Davis and Juan Thornhill made appearances on the published depth charts at the returner positions but never made any actual returns during the season.
There are two additions of note to the core special teams group and each should have a large impact this season.
Tavares Kelly - St. Thomas Aquinas High School (Ft. Lauderdale, FL) - 247 Composite 3 Star - 5-8 160 pounds - Kelly may be slight of stature but he's quick and elusive. That description is just the formula you want in a punt returner and that's where Kelly is expected to shine on special teams this year. Kelly's skills as a returner are so impressive that 247 Sports initially classified him as a returner before adding wide receiver to his recruiting profile. That designation as a returner is the first I can ever recall from one of the major recruiting services. With Daniel Hamm out of eligibility and OZ expected to have his plate full on offense, Kelly naturally slots into the expected starter at punt returner. Check out some of his skills in his recruiting video posted by Virginia Football's Twitter account during National Signing Day.
Hunter Pearson - Seneca High School (Seneca, SC) - 247 Composite 3 Star - 6-2 210 pounds - UVA's struggle to score points in the kicking game recently is well documented. It's hoped and expected that Pearson will be the cure to that ailment. Pearson is reported to have a booming leg and former special teams coordinator Kelly Poppinga has previously noted that Pearson was making field goals out to 50 yards in high school. If Pearson can win the job as expected, an immense amount of pressure will be lifted from the offense.
Per the updated roster at VirginiaSports.com, the Hoos added two kicking specialists as walkons: 1 kicker and 1 kicker/punter.
Jack Collins - Kicker - Stephen F. Austin High School (Austin, TX) - 5-7 140 pounds - Collins was second team all-district in 2017 for Stephen F. Austin High School. He made 91 of 96 extra point attempts in two varsity seasons. He was also 6 for 9 on field goal attempts with a long of 43 yards in those two seasons. Collins was a high academic performer in high school.
Jerry Horng - Kicker/Punter - George Washington High School (Danville, VA) - 6-0 155 pounds - Horng handled both kicking and punting duties for his high school. His senior season saw him score 87 points for GW Danville which was good for third highest on the team. He earned first team all-district and all-metro honors as well as honorable mention all-region honors as a senior. Like Jack Collins, Horng is also a high academic performer.
You could make a case for MVP for any of four players: Lester Coleman, Joe Reed, Tavares Kelly, and Hunter Pearson. It's especially tempting to give Reed or Pearson the nod. What remains to be seen, however, is if the new kickoff fair catch rules will allow kicking teams to blunt Reed's impact in the return game. And while Pearson enters camp as the expected kicker for the 2018 season, he still has to adjust rapidly to the college game while unseating an incumbent that is admittedly vulnerable. And for Kelly, the number of opportunities just aren't there for a punt returner to win MVP for a position group. It's nearly impossible to give him the preseason nod either when he's yet to do it in a game.
That leaves Lester Coleman as the winner by default, it would seem. But Coleman is deserving of the choice on his merits. Coleman is a weapon from the punter position, possessing the ability to drop a ball consistently inside the opponents' 20 yard line as well as unleashing a boomer that flips field position. Pitt's Ryan Winslow, the All ACC first team punter in 2017, was a senior last season and is now a Chicago Bear. It would not surprise anyone to see Coleman get the nod in 2018 either in the preseason, postseason, or both. All things considered, Coleman is the Preseason MVP here.
The Hoos need Hunter Pearson to be the breakout special teams player in 2018. The inability to consistently kick field goals wreaks havoc on an offense's plans when it crosses the 50 yard line. Expectations are high for Pearson. He's the new guy at a position of need where scholarship players are the exception and not the rule. If he wins the job as expected, the opportunities will be there for him to be the clear breakout player on special teams in 2018. If he can live up to those expectations, he'll be an immediate fan favorite and the clear winner here.
A Stab at the UofR Game Depth Chart
If the addition of a full time special teams coach and a scholarship kicker work out for the Hoos in 2018, this unit has the potential to be one of the better groups on the team. It's been a long time since special teams were truly special across the board at UVA. There's always been a weak link or two be it at kicker, a lack of playmakers at the returner spots, or consistent breakdowns in the coverage game.
We know that kick returner and punter are set with Reed and Coleman. Both are all conference caliber players.
Kelly gives UVA a weapon at punt returner that they rarely have. You'd have to go back to Marques Hagans or Alvin Pearman to find a punt returner in Charlottesville that opponents truly feared. Daniel Hamm's best trait was that he almost always caught the punt when he had an opportunity. That's not something taken for granted in Charlottesville these days. But it's also fair to say that he wasn't a gamebreaker at the position either. If he wins the job, Kelly has the potential to join the Hangans-Pearman group if the blocking provides time and running lanes.
It really all comes down to what happens at kicker. There's cautious optimism that Pearson will take control of this job and be a real difference maker for the Hoos. Assuming that Coach Brumfield's schemes are adequate at kick coverage, Pearson's season is the pivot point between a possible A grade or something much worse.
Note: On July 27 at the conclusion of summer workouts prior to camp, it was reported that Hunter Pearson would miss the start of camp due to an undisclosed injury. Further details were not given. It's noteworthy that Pearson was not ruled out for the entire camp. When he's healthy, it's still expected that he will win the place kicking job for the Hoos.