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Virginia special teams report: Experience in return game, newcomers at kicking positions

uva footballVirginia’s special teams ranked just 76th in the ESPN Football Power Index in 2020, after a 13th-place ranking in 2019 – the year the Cavaliers won the ACC Coastal Division.

Special teams coordinator Ricky Brumfield will have to break in two new kickers after losing placekicker Brian Delaney (10-of-13 FG, 35-of-36 XP, PFF season grade: 68.1) and punter Nash Griffin (42.4 yards per punt, PFF season grade: 73.2).

The frontrunner at placekicker is sophomore Justin Duenkel, who handled kickoff duties for the ‘Hoos in 2020 (67.2 yards per attempt, 26 touchbacks on 43 kickoff, PFF season grade: 82.0).

Also in the running at placekicker is junior Hunter Pearson, who at least does have some game experience – he was 2-for-2 on field-goal tries and 5-for-5 on PATs in two games as a true freshman in 2018 before Delaney emerged as the go-to guy in the latter half of that season.

Sophomore Brendan Farrell is the only player on the roster this spring at punter, so unless additional candidates emerge over the summer, the job would seem to be his.

Brumfield isn’t concerned at this point at the lack of depth and experience at the kicking position.

“I feel really good right now. We’re in a good position,” Brumfield said. “Brendan is doing a really good job punting the ball, good hangtime, good distance. We’ve just got to get him more consistent. I know with the summer, getting stronger, and different things like that, I feel good.”

Which, OK, they’re looking good in the spring, but other than Duenkel’s kickoffs and two games from Farrell three years, we’re not talking about anybody having much game experience doing what they’ll be asked to do in the fall.

“Not that I don’t have that much anxiety about it,” Brumfield said. “You always worry until the season comes, you know what I mean? Because a lot of those guys don’t have game time experience. So, you know, some of them look good right now during practices and during scrimmages, but, you know, we just got to see when, you know, when a game comes.”

The return unit has Billy Kemp IV (19.8 yard average on kick returns, 5.1 yard average on punt returns, PFF season grade: 63.6) and wideout Tavares Kelly Jr. (23.2 yard average on kick returns, PFF season grade: 57.1), with depth coming from tailback Perris Jones and wideout Demick Starling.

“Every year I’ve ever coached, there has been an emphasis on big plays in the return game, because I really feel that’s what’s going to help us win a game,” Brumfield said. “If we get big plays, that kind of helps build the momentum and enthusiasm, and everyone starts getting cheered up on the sidelines and gets hyped, and it helps build the momentum for offense to come out on the field and just take off with it. So, you know, for me, it’s a goal every single year that we got to get big plays on special teams in the return game.”

Story by Chris Graham

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