newstony elliott is getting backup qb jay woolfolk ready to be his punt returner seriously

Tony Elliott is getting backup QB Jay Woolfolk ready to be his punt returner: Seriously?

Chris Graham
jay woolfolk
Jay Woolfolk. Photo: UVA Athletics

Jay Woolfolk didn’t dress for the Georgia Tech game last week because he “felt something in his knee” in a non-contact drill in practice, UVA Football coach Tony Elliott said Tuesday.

Fast forward from that to Elliott saying a few minutes later in his weekly presser that he’s getting Woolfolk ready to be his punt returner.

That would already be coaching malpractice even if you didn’t know that Woolfolk is also the team’s backup quarterback – wait, let’s go back to Elliott in his presser, because he doesn’t view Woolfolk as just the backup quarterback.

“Jay’s going to be a quarterback of the future. There’s no question about that,” said Elliott, who, to reiterate, “felt something in his knee” and, thus, didn’t dress last week, and is still being prepared to take over as the team’s punt returner.

After Woolfolk, the soon-to-be punt returner, on the QB depth chart are former walk-on Jared Rayman and two true freshmen, none of whom are QBs of the future, however distant you would want to project out.

No offense to any of those guys, but if Brennan Armstrong goes down, you don’t want any of them to have to be the guy behind center.

Anyway, again, Woolfolk, the only viable option on the roster to go in for Armstrong, punt returner.

Wrap your head around that.

And then, this: that Woolfolk is a two-sport guy, and football is his second sport.

As a freshman in 2021, Woolfolk was Brian O’Connor’s setup man, showcasing a 95-mph fastball with a plus slider who posted a 2.87 ERA in 28 relief appearances, with 55 strikeouts and a .211 opponent batting average in 37.2 innings.

Unless he lands wrong on his right shoulder sometime between now and the summer of 2024, Woolfolk is going to put his name on an MLB deal with a signing bonus, at the least, in the area of high six figures.

We’re going to have this guy returning punts.

“If you watch him go track the ball, he’s so natural tracking the ball because he’s a baseball player,” Elliott said.

So, there’s that.

And it’s not like there isn’t even a history of having a backup QB returning punts among the guys on Elliott’s staff, because there very much is.

The wide receivers coach, Marques Hagans, was Matt Schaub’s backup for two seasons, and Al Groh used him at wideout and punt returner to get his athleticism on the field.

Hagans caught 29 passes and returned 57 punts as a freshman and sophomore before taking over as the QB1 in his junior year, in 2004, and then ended up in the NFL as a wideout, playing five seasons with the St. Louis Rams, Kansas City Chiefs and Washington Redskins.

Like Hagans was in the early ‘aughts, Woolfolk is “very dynamic with the football in his hands,” Elliott said.

Before the decision was made to hold him out last week, Elliott and offensive coordinator Des Kitchings had installed a package of plays for Woolfolk at QB, and it wasn’t “quarterback run stuff,” Elliott said.

“His stuff was more just getting involved on the perimeter, doing some of those things with his package. It wasn’t necessarily a wildcat type of deal where we were going to try to run him,” Elliott said.

That’s actually not a bad idea. Armstrong is a fifth-year senior, so Woolfolk will go into next spring as the prohibitive favorite to be QB1, unless Elliott and Kitchings decide to bring in somebody from the transfer portal to compete for the job.

Woolfolk has one career start at QB, last November’s game with Notre Dame, after Armstrong went down to injury late in the loss out west to BYU, but his action this year has been limited to two snaps of mop-up duty in the season-opening win over Richmond and six snaps for a briefly injured Armstrong in the 24-3 Week 2 loss at Illinois.

Elliott and Kitchings would, no doubt, like to get some feel for how Woolfolk does under live fire heading into the offseason, so getting him involved with a package of plays would give them that look.

But the punt returning thing, that makes no sense.

What’s going on there is Elliott is trying to find a spark for his special teams unit, which has been god-awful from the opening kick of the season.

Virginia ranks 11th in the ACC in punt-return yards (61), with the primary return guys – Billy Kemp IV and Ethan Davies – recording more fair catches (16) than returns (11).

Elliott made clear Tuesday that he’s going to use more of his starters and two-deep guys on special teams going forward to try to boost the productivity from that unit.

“We had a blocked punt. We missed two field goals and an extra point. You’re not supposed to win games like that,” Elliott said. “It’s just, defense gave us a chance. They stopped the run, forced them to be one dimensional we found a way to win the game. Proud of that, but let’s be honest that we can’t win football games like that.

“The stretch run we’re getting ready to play, you’re getting ready to play some teams that are really talented that will take advantage of that. So going forward, you’ll see more of the guys that are playing on offense and defense out there contributing on special teams.”

Which is all well and good, but Jay Woolfolk, the backup QB – a future big-leaguer – returning punts?

Say it ain’t so.

Chris Graham

Chris Graham

Chris Graham is the editor of Augusta Free Press. A 1994 alum of the University of Virginia, Chris has won 17 Virginia Press Association awards for his work as an investigative reporter, feature writer and columnist. Chris is the author and co-author of seven books, including Poverty of Imagination and Team of Destiny: Inside Virginia Basketball’s Run to the 2019 National Championship, both published in 2019, and The Worst Wrestling Pay-Per-View Ever, published in 2018. For his commentaries on news, sports and politics, go to my YouTube page, Want to reach Chris? Try [email protected].