Welcome back to our 2019 Football Season Preview. To view our preview table of contents and read already-completed pieces, click here or on the Series button above.
The Cavaliers suffered major losses from a special teams corps that was already not the team's strength. What's worse is that the players they lost were the strengths of the unit.
Lester Coleman - Punter - Coleman kicked the Cavaliers into second place in the ACC in punting with a 40.1 net, for a second consecutive outstanding year. He was a Campbell Award ("the academic Heisman") semifinalist in recognition of his excellence on and off the field. Now he is trying out for the NFL, and the Cavaliers have to find a replacement who will flip field position as effectively as did the #3 all-time punter in UVA history. Who will replace Coleman is an open question.
Joe Spaziani - Long Snapper - If the name "Spaziani" is familiar to you, is it because you recognize Frank Spaziani as the former head coach at Boston College and wonder if Joe is related - or is it because you are keenly attuned to special teams and know the identity of a long snapper who doesn't loft a snap high over a kicker's head or squib it along the ground to a punter? You can be forgiven for not knowing who Spaziani is, because he was one of the most reliable long snappers in the game, and his accurate snaps will be a big loss. Who will replace Spaziani is an open question.
The special teams cupboard is not bare. The Cavaliers return kickers and returners who had the place-kicking and kickoff returns among the conference leaders, in Joe Reed and Brian Delaney. Other contributors who could be improved this season include Tavares Kelly with punt returns, Hunter Pearson with kicking, and Nash Griffin as a punter.
Joe Reed - KR - Senior - 6'1" 215 lb - The biggest bright spot in the special teams was the kick returning of electric Joe Reed, who finished the season 2nd in the ACC, 9th in the nation with a 27.2 yard average, and 1 TD. He enters his senior season already holding UVA's career yardage and TD records.
Brian Delaney - K - Junior - 5'10" 200 lb - Delaney took over the kicking duties after the NC State game last year and stabilized the position. After A.J. Mejia got off to a bad start (1-4 in FGs), Hunter Pearson kicked two games and did well, then Mendenhall turned to Delaney, who hit all of his PATs and 12 of 16 field goals. Delaney came out of spring practice leading the competition to replace Coleman at punter, adding those duties to his kicking job, which he retains heading into summer practice.
Tavares Kelly - PR/KR - Sophomore - 5'8" 160 lb - The freshman from Florida gave immediate contributions at punt returner with 11.0 per return and a long of 43 yards, and as a secondary kick returner. He did not, however, win sole possession of the PR job, as he shared it with Chuck Davis and Billy Kemp, both of whom also return. Mendenhall and his Special Teams Coordinator Ricky Brumfield probably would like to see Kelly claim the job as he has the most explosive ability.
Hunter Pearson - K - Freshman (R) - 6'2" 210 lb - Pearson came in with a lot of fanfare as a scholarship kicker, but has struggled with minor injuries, and even going 2-2 on FGs and 6-6 on pATs in the Louisville and NC State games was not enough to prevent Mendenhall from giving the kicking job to Delaney. Pearson missed the spring with another injury, and will battle with Delaney and Justin Duenkel for the job this summer.
Chuck Davis - PR - Junior - 5'9" 170 lb - Davis returned the most punts of the trio, but averaged only 3.8 yards per return.
Billy Kemp - PR - Sophomore - 5'9" 175 lb - The sophomore from Highland Springs, VA returned 3 punts for a 10.3 yard average in 2018 and will be involved in the competition again.
Nash Griffin - H, P/K - Junior - 6'2" 225 lb - What catches your eye on the roster for Nash is Indianapolis Lawrence Central H.S., the same school that produced Kyle Guy. What is more meaningful, however, is Griffin has been the holder for the last two years. He could add punter to that duty this year. As of the end of spring practice, however, he finds himself behind Delaney.
A.J. Mejia - K - Junior - 5'8" 185 lb - Mejia started last season as the kicker, but proceeded to hit only 1 of 4 field goals and lose the job to Hunter Pearson. Mejia will compete again, but would appear to be a long shot in the crowded field.
Justin Duenkel - Freshman - 5'11" 195 lb - The preferred walk-on from Great Falls, VA has a real chance to win the place kicking job.
Seneca Milledge - Freshman - 5'6" 160 lb - The incoming talent in the Olamide Zacchaeus mold will be given a chance to get on the field as a returner. If he can catch punts cleanly and make the first man miss, watch out.
Joe Reed - Already UVA's career kick return king, Reed has a chance to be one of the best kick returners in the nation, if Coach Mendenhall doesn't decide to limit his use due to need in the regular offense. Kick returns are plays that can turn a game, and Reed is the kind of returner who can make those plays. Reed's kick returns can make that difference that allows UVA to achieve preseason expectations of a Coastal Division championship (doesn't that sound great?).
Tavares Kelly - A lot of excitement came out of summer camp last season about Kelly's talents, and he showed flashes as a true freshman. Now that he has a year of college football under his belt, it is time for those flashes to become a strobe. He has the potential to do for our punt returns what Reed does for kicks. A couple more long returns could bring that ten win season.
A Stab at the Pitt Game Depth Chart
Special teams have not been strong in Bronco's first three seasons, but looking back at his BYU tenure, it is evident that he values them and devotes resources. BYU had some of the best units in the nation his last three years there. Before last season, he brought in Ricky Brumfield as Special Teams Coordinator, an experienced and energetic leader. Some improvement was shown, with the punt coverage unit improving from #117 in the nation to no. 1 in the ACC and No. 7 in the nation with 3.21 yards allowed per return. Reed had UVA atop the ACC in kickoff returns. Now the Hoos just need to get the kick coverage and punt returns in the top half of the conference. With the high expectations for the team, the Hoos cannot afford the special teams screwing up field position. The competition for long snapper is between redshirt freshmen Lee Dudley and Tucker Finkelston and true freshman Enzo Anthony. Replacing Coleman and Spaziani will be tough, but Virginia has a lot of talent in this phase of the game.