The Virginia Tech Preview: Special Teams

Editor's Note: This is the third installment in a four-piece series that will give an in-depth preview of the individual unit match-ups, as well as a special teams preview, and finally ending on Friday with a final wrap-up before the two teams face off on Saturday night.

Frank_beamer_medium

Part 1: Tide Offense v. Hokie Defense

Part 2: Tide Defense v. Hokie Offense

"Beamerball." You've heard of it, and so has anybody who even remotely follows college football. Aside from arguably the Vick brothers, the general fan is probably more familiar with "Beamerball" than any other specific aspect of the Virginia Tech football program. That is what is hyped most with regard to the Hokies, and you cannot sit down and watch a Virginia Tech football game without it being mentioned at least eight or ten times throughout the course of the broadcast.

But that's all public conception and TV talking heads, of all of which is completely irrelevant when two teams take to the playing field. The more relevant inquiry is this: What actually is "Beamerball," just how important is special teams to begin with, what all constitutes good special teams play, and at any rate does the actual production justify the hype for the Hokies' special teams unit?

For the first question, the ever-amusing Urban Dictionary gives the main definition of "Beamerball" as, "A brand of football pioneered by Frank Beamer and the Hokies emphasizing special teams. A second, more detailed definition of the term is perhaps a bit more insightful, "A brand of football played by the Virginia Tech Hokies, and named after long-time (1987 - present) head coach and Tech alumnus Frank Beamer. Primarily known for profilic kick- and punt-blocking, Beamerball encompasses the idea that the team can produce points (and prevent opponents' points) at any time, from any point on the football field." Bottom line, broadly put Beamerball is about playing special teams at a high level, but specifically speaking it's all about the Hokies' knack for blocking kicks and punts.

Precisely measuring the importance of special teams can be a difficult thing to do, but it is nevertheless something that can be accomplished with a certain degree of intelligence and effort. The statistical analysis experts over at Football Outsiders, for example, used their DVOA metric and came to the ultimate conclusion that the total quality of an NFL team is three parts offense, three parts defense, and one part special teams. In other words, special teams comprises 1/7th of overall team quality, and frankly I see no reason why that conclusion wouldn't be applicable to college football as well. Though there may be three phases to the game, not all three phases have the same value, and considering that special teams snaps are only a relatively small portion of the game (compared to offensive and defensive snaps), it comes as no surprise that the total value of having a good special teams unit will be lower than that of a good offense or a good defense. Special teams play is highly important, no doubt there, but ultimately it is the quality of your offense and your defense that will be the two major driving forces in determining just how good your team really is. A good special teams unit can give you a slight edge, one that can really pay off in close games, but a team with good special teams, put together with bad offense and defense, is in for a very long year, much worse than what you would be if you had a good offense or a good defense and a poor special teams unit. Clearly, special teams, while important, is not as important as either offense or defense.

And that brings us to our third question, exactly what constitutes good special teams play to begin with? The true core concept of Beamerball is really blocking kicks and punts (at least the public conception of it, anyway), but is that really the totality of good special teams play? As any football observer worth his salt could tell you, of course not. "Special teams" is a nice all-encompassing term, but it really describes a lot of more specialized skills and abilities that are often times unrelated. Certainly the ability to block kicks and punts is a part of that, but it's only a couple of pieces in a rather large puzzle. If you think deeper on the subject, you can come up with about 30 different components that, if done well in totality, comprise good special teams play. The following is not an all-inclusive list, instead it's all the individual components -- in a bit of an ode to the late George Carlin and his seven dirty words bit -- I could think of in one short sitting:

  • Kick-off length
  • Kick-off location and positioning
  • Kick-off hang time
  • Kick-off return defense
  • Onside kick placement
  • Onside kick recover ability (on both sides)
  • Deep snapping on punts
  • Punt protection
  • Quickness of punter's release
  • Punt length
  • Punt location and positioning
  • Punt hang time
  • Punt return defense
  • Punt blocking abilities
  • Blocking for the punt returner
  • The punt returner's actual return abilities with ball in hand
  • The punt returner's ability to safely catch the punt
  • The punt returner's decision making ability on when to call for a fair catch and let the punt bounce, or when to take a kneel on a kick-off
  • Deep snapping on field goals
  • Quality holding by the holder
  • Timing between the snapper, holder, and kicker
  • Blocking by the field goal protection unit
  • Ability of the kicker to elevate the ball over the line to avoid a block
  • Kicking power of the kicker
  • Kicking accuracy of the kicker
  • Field goal blocking abilities
  • Coaches' ability in making correct decisions with regard to utilizing special teams units
  • Ability to successfully take wind and other playing conditions into account on all kicks
  • Ability to avoid special teams penalties (clipping, roughing, kicks out of bounds, etc.)

And, again, collectively all of those components in their sum is what constitutes good special teams play, regardless of how much attention gets paid to the blocked kicks and punts. Sure, blocked kicks and blocked punts are what makes the Sportscenter top ten plays, and it's those plays that get put on YouTube a million times with the obligatory crunk soundtrack, but at the end of the day those two things are really only a couple of about 30 different things you generally need to do well in order to play special teams at a high level. A team that can block kicks and punts at a high rate nevertheless still has poor special teams if they struggle to competently execute the majority of the aforementioned other components of good special teams play.


Furthermore, blocked kicks and blocked punts can tend to be a bit overrated because even with the best blocking units, these plays are nevertheless very rare. Take the Hokies last year, for example, they blocked two kicks and two punts, so four total blocks on the season. And that's over the course of a fourteen game season, so even for a team so highly regarded in terms of its kick blocking abilities, it's still a relatively rare occurrence. Do the math, you're talking about one blocked kick every three and a half games, or put in more real terms, about one blocked kick / punt a month. Again, even for a good kick blocking team, it's still a rare occurrence, and furthermore, just as with any other type of play, a blocked kick or a punt does not necessarily have a real impact on a game. Obviously it can at times, to be sure, but often times blocked kicks and punts come in games where you already have a big lead / big deficit or in games where you were likely to win / lose with relative ease regardless of whether or not you got the block (thus making the marginal value of the block itself practically zero).

With the previous two paragraphs in mind -- having the knowledge that good special teams play involves far more than just the ability to block kicks and punts, and also that blocked kicks / punts are a rarity even for the best block units -- let's get to the true question at hand: Just how good are the Hokies' special teams? Does the actual production of the unit justify the hype, or have we reached a point to where, to paraphrase John Ford, the legend has become fact, and now we just print the legend?

To closer analyze that question, let's take a look at how the Hokies fared nationally from 2004-2008 in five of the major special teams metrics: kick return yardage defense, punt return yardage defense, kickoff returns, punt returns, and net punting.

Kick Return Yardage Defense 2008 2007 2006 2005 2004
Actual 19.45 18.45 21.24 20.65 21.74
NCAA Rank 29th 13th 78th 61st 81st
Punt Return Yardage Defense 2008 2007 2006 2005 2004
Actual 12.42 7.74 8.15 12.78 9.41
NCAA Rank 103rd 44th 53rd 101st 56th
Kickoff Returns 2008 2007 2006 2005 2004
Actual 20.59 18.87 20.90 19.04 23.42
NCAA Rank 72nd 105th 48th 88th 15th
Punt Returns 2008 2007 2006 2005 2004
Actual 8.96 15.69 12.61 8.87 9.34
NCAA Rank 59th 6th 23rd 62nd 60th
Net Punting 2008 2007 2006 2005 2004
Actual 39.00 42.28 41.65 43.15 38.98
NCAA Rank 92nd 26th 45th 49th 82nd

And when you browse those rankings, suffice it to say, it's nothing overly impressive. Combined, this look yields us 25 individual snapshots in time telling us how the Hokies performed in particular special teams categories, and again you are not exactly blown away with the results. Of those 25 snapshots, they finished outside the top 40 nationally a full 20 times. Only one time in five years did they finish in the top ten nationally in any of these metrics. On the other hand, fifteen times they finished 50th and lower, and seven times they finished 80th or lower.

Now, in all fairness, those five metrics don't tell us all there is with regard to the overall quality of their special teams unit, and one thing left unmentioned is the high accuracy of the Virginia Tech field goal kickers in recent years (a key competitive advantage, to be sure). Nevertheless, even with that and their good kick / punt blocking units in mind, I do think it is fair to say in this situation that the legend -- as widely accepted as it may be -- is somewhat unsupported by the facts. To be sure, I do think the Virginia Tech special teams unit as a whole is a pretty good one, but with that said we will face several pretty good special teams units in 2009, some of which may be better than what we see from Tech, and frankly I see no objective reason for 'Bama fans to be any more concerned over special teams in this particular game than they are for the typical big-time game against a high quality opponent.

With all of that covered, let's turn to some of the more individual players you will see in this game.

In the Hokies kicking game, the highly effective Dustin Keys does not return, but don't expect the Hokies to have any real trouble with regard to placekicking. Fifth year senior Matt Waldron will take over the job, and he looks to make the transition a smooth one. He had a strong spring, and from what I can tell he has hit basically every kick he has attempted in scrimmage work this Fall, so don't be expecting any drop-off in the Hokie kicking game Saturday night. Leigh Tiffin, of course, a senior in his right, returns for the Tide, and in terms of the entire season, I imagine he will continue his track record of being a pretty good, yet consistently inconsistent, kicker. Nevertheless, I expect he should do pretty well in the Georgia Dome too. Kicking indoors gives a major competitive advantage to a kicker -- no wind whatsoever, no rain, and always good footing -- that results in a higher percentage of field goal attempts being converted, so expect both kickers to take advantage of that Saturday night. Don't forget, Tiffin hit a 54-yarder in this game a year ago. Barring the random shank -- or Leigh Tiffin deciding to give one of his blockers a rectal probe with one of his kicks like he did last year on the final play in regulation against LSU -- expect both kickers to have pretty good nights.

And addressing the obligatory punt / kick blocking units, in all fairness we do need to keep an eye on the Hokies. Frank Beamer said recently that he thought this punt blocking unit had the potential to be the best he's ever had at Virginia Tech, and while I wouldn't put a lot of stock in a quote like that if it came from one of the more mouthy coaches like Houston Nutt or Les Miles, Beamer tends to be quite open and honest when dealing with the media, and only rarely does he have the random bouts of diarrhea of the mouth that plague so many of his other fellow head coaches. If he said it, I believe he legitimately means it, and given the long, rangy players that he has on the punt blocking line -- Logan Thomas (6'6), Marcus Davis (6'4), Kam Chancellor (6'4) and Xavier Boyce (6'4) -- I can certainly see where that statement is coming from. Of course, though, the Alabama blocking unit looks pretty good too, and we had some success blocking punts and kicks as well in 2008. Furthermore, given the sheer athleticism that we can put on those units, if we really come after a kick or a punt, we probably have just about as good of a chance as anyone else of ultimately scoring the block.

Fortunately for the Tide, though, we've been a good team in terms of protecting punts and kicks the past couple of years. Brian Selman has spent the last two years at the Tide's deep snapper, and with 262 career snaps he has yet to botch one. Furthermore, P.J. Fitzgerald has launched 180 punts in the last three years as 'Bama's starting punter, and only one has been blocked. Likewise, we've largely had the same type of protection when it comes to placekicking with Leigh Tiffin as well. All told, Tiffin has attempted 76 field goals in his career at Alabama, with only two being blocked. Along those same lines, of the 96 extra points, only one of them has been blocked, so in the aggregate he's only had three blocks on 192 total attempts (i.e. only about 1.5% of the time are his kicks blocked).

Hopefully helpful for the Tide will also be its experience at the critical special teams positions, in particular the kicker, the punter, the deep snapper, the holder, and the up-back who makes the protection calls when the punting unit goes on the field. Those players this year consist of Leigh Tiffin, P.J. Fitzgerald, Brian Selman, and Cory Reamer, all of which are seniors. And in particular pay close attention to Reamer when the Alabama punting team goes on the field. It's his responsibility to make sure everyone is lined up right and that everything the Hokies bring at the Tide -- and rest assured, they will probably have a couple of tricks up their sleeve -- is properly accounted for. It should be comforting to us all that such a critical position is being manned by a heady, fifth-year senior. On the other side of the ball, though, Tech punter Brent Bowden is a senior in his own right, and deep snapper Collin Carroll was good enough to earn a scholarship based solely on his snapping abilities, so don't expect the Hokies to be giving us any freebies either.

The return game, though, is where things could get really interesting. Tech's leading punt returner from a year ago, Macho Harris, is now in the NFL, and redshirt freshman Ryan Williams has taken over as the Hokies deep man. Admittedly, I think Williams is a bit of an airhead, but there's no questioning that he has high-end athletic ability, as he showed a few days back in a Tech scrimmage where he took a punt back 82 yards for a score. I don't know how his decision making will be, but he will be a threat with the ball in his hands. Fortunately, though, the good news for Alabama is that with the athletes we have on special teams, we should field both a good kick and punt coverage unit, and for all of the hype with regard to their punt blocking abilities, as we showed earlier, the Hokies don't exactly have a great track record in terms of production in the punt return game. Hopefully the Tide's coverage units can get the job done.


The real one to watch, however, is the Tide's Javier Arenas. A returner of almost legendary proportions, Arenas is at the least in the discussion for the best returner in the country, and this Tide follower cannot truthfully say he would trade him for any other returner in the country. His decision-making abilities can be frustrating at times, and that could lead to a big turnover for the Hokies (hopefully not, and hopefully he has improved that shortcoming in the offseason as I'm sure it has been stressed), but if Arenas gets the ball in his hands, very big things could happen. As the statistics showed us earlier, Virginia Tech has really struggled the past few years in both punt and kick return defense -- not to mention net punting -- so if Arenas gets the ball in his hands, don't be surprised if he breaks one. And also, don't be surprised if the Hokie coaching staff just avoids punting to Arenas all together. This is a good staff, and punting away from Arenas was the right decision for much of last year (just ask Sylvester Croom). Don't be surprised if the Hokie coaching staff opts to eliminate even the possibility of a big return by Arenas from the outset.

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