Home Elliott focusing on UVA’s awful special teams: ‘We were last in the league, and rightfully so’

Elliott focusing on UVA’s awful special teams: ‘We were last in the league, and rightfully so’

Chris Graham
uva tony elliott
Photo: UVA Athletics

Football coaches like to say special teams is a third of the game, which, not quite, but the point is well-meaning, and well-taken.

You kick on most fourth downs, you return when the other team kicks on fourth downs, there’s kickoff coverage and returns, field goals, extra points.

It’s field position, points on or off the scoreboard.

Virginia, in Tony Elliott Years 1 and 2, hasn’t been good at this part of the game.

The UVA special-teams unit ranked 105th in Pro Football Focus and 108th among the 133 teams in FBS in the ESPN FPI in 2023.

And these numbers are actually an improvement from 2022 – PFF had Virginia’s special teams 115th in 2022, and the ESPN FPI had the unit 127th.

“We weren’t very good on special teams, and obviously, our job as coaches is to self-scout and analyze every aspect of our performance. And special teams, you know, we were last in the league, and rightfully so, because we put some bad stuff on tape,” Elliott told reporters after practice on Wednesday.

Elliott thinks depth was an issue each of the past two years, leading special-teams coach Keith Gaither to have to play guys from the two-deep on offense and defense who were already on the field for a lot of snaps, “and that wore on us, I think, schematically.”

“There’s a couple things that we got to change and tweak, and that’s what we’re focusing on,” Elliott said.

A particular point of focus will be on the punt team. Elliott thinks he has an all-ACC punter in Daniel Sparks, who averaged 42.9 yards per punt in 2023, though that was down from a booming 45.9 yards per punt in 2022.

There’s a roster need at long snapper, which Elliott said may require the staff to go back to the transfer portal after spring practice to address.

You don’t have to do much figuring to understand why Elliott is putting an emphasis on the punt team. Virginia, in 2023, lost two one-score games (JMU, Louisville) in which the special teams allowed the opponent to score a TD on a blocked punt.

The other special-teams units had their own issues – there were two other games (Maryland, Virginia Tech) with an opponent returning a kickoff for a TD, and the walk-off loss to NC State came after a penalty on the special teams that gave the Wolfpack kicker a second chance after blowing the first attempt at a game-winning kick.

Virginia has, in effect, been fighting a three-pronged battle with one of the units not only not contributing, but actively ceding territory to the enemy.

“We just got to coach better, we got to teach better, and then the guys, collectively, as a as a program, we just got to take more ownership, want to, desire, passion, for special teams, and understanding that it’s a third of the game, those are plays that make a difference,” Elliott said.

Chris Graham

Chris Graham

Chris Graham, the king of "fringe media," is the founder and editor of Augusta Free Press. A 1994 alum of the University of Virginia, Chris is the author and co-author of seven books, including Poverty of Imagination, a memoir published in 2019, and Team of Destiny: Inside Virginia Basketball’s Run to the 2019 National Championship, and The Worst Wrestling Pay-Per-View Ever, published in 2018. For his commentaries on news, sports and politics, go to his YouTube page, or subscribe to his Street Knowledge podcast. Email Chris at [email protected].