Wednesday, October 18, 2017

State of the Hokies: Part Three; Special Teams

Looking at Special Teams play for the Hokies so far in 2017

By: Adam Pace
October 18, 2017

(Photo: Virginia Tech Athletics/Dave Knachel)
If you have followed Virginia Tech football for any amount of time, when you hear special teams the word that comes to mind is probably Beamerball. But after coach Beamer retired in 2015, everyone was wondering how new coach Justin Fuente would value special teams play. But as we saw last year, Fuente sees special teams as a key aspect to winning football games. With the youth on offense this year, special teams have been critical to the Hokies. Special teams coach James Shibest has put together one of the best units in the country this season, as the Hokies currently rank sixth in the nation is special teams efficiency. We are going to break this one down by punting (kicking & returning), kickoffs (kicking & returning), and field goals (kicking & defending).


(Photo: Virginia Tech Athletics/Dave Knachel)
Punting

Last season, punter Mitchell Ludwig wasn't terrible but he struggled with providing consistency and the ability to flip the field position on opponents. During the offseason it was made known that he had graduated early, leaving the Hokies without a punter. Shibest quickly recruited Oscar Bradburn from Sydney, Australia and had him here in time to participate in spring practice. Bradburn has been great so far in 2017, pinning opponents inside their own 20 yard line nine times and averaging 43.8 yards per punt. Besides one complete whiff on a rugby style punt against Clemson (which I blame on the coaches), Bradburn has really been able to provide some consistency and ability to force teams to have to drive a long way against a really good defense. Shibest was quoted in saying the other day that we have yet to see everything Oscar can do as a punter so the future is bright for this young freshman.

Punting grade so far: A

Greg Stroman entered the season with two career punt returns for touchdowns and has already added another one in 2017. He was really close to adding his second one for the season against Clemson but was stopped short of the goal line. Stroman has shown time and time again that he has the ability to break a game wide open if he is given space on a return. So far this season, Stroman has a 190 return yards and is averaging 10.6 yards per return, good for seventh in the nation. The best improvement I have personally seen from Greg this year, he is actually calling fair catches. I often joked last year that he was allergic to the fair catch, as he would rarely call one. But after not calling one against Duke in 2016 and getting his ankle messed up because of it, he seems to have learned when to take a risk and when not to take one. Stroman's ability to break a big return at any point will certainly keep Virginia Tech within striking distance of any opponent remaining in 2017. He has had a solid season to this point and could really help the Hokies steal a game down the stretch run.

Punt return grade so far: A

(Photo: Virginia Tech Athletics/Dave Knachel)
Kickoffs

Joey Sly has continued to be able to give the Tech defense an advantage by kicking touchback after touchback. Of the 39 kickoffs Slye has had this season, 36 of them have been for touchbacks. This means teams are starting on their own 25 yard line 92% of the time after a Tech touchdown. Not only can Joey kick the ball far, he isn't afraid to tackle someone if they decide to bring the ball out. He has two tackles in 2017, one assisted tackle and one solo tackle. On the solo tackle, Slye absolutely leveled the poor return man from East Carolina. This isn't surprising though because unlike most kickers, Slye is actually built more like a linebacker. Hopefully Joey can continue to put the ball out of the back of the end zone and keep the pressure on the opposing teams, by making them have to drive the ball 75 yards against Bud Foster's unit.

Kickoffs grade so far: A+

The kick return game this year for the Hokies has been a bit below average. A lot has factored into that though, as the main returner James Clark suffered an injury against ECU and hasn't played since. Clark was really bringing a spark to the return unit that we hadn't seen in sometime. After West Virginia tied the game at 17, Clark had a great return and set the Hokies up with good field position, where they would score on the very next play. Since Clark went down, the Tech return game has as well. Travon McMillian and Henry Murphy have been rotating at the position and while both guys have great speed, they both seem to be lacking that spark that Clark seemed to have. Currently Tech ranks 108th in the nation in kick return efficiency with an average of 24.3 yards per return. That's not good at all considering a touchback gives you 25 yards. Which means on average, Tech is starting a yard shorter than where they would be if they just took a touchback. I hope some emphasis was put on this unit during the bye week because small added yards on kick returns can go a long way in helping a very young offense.

Kick return grade so far: C-

(Photo: Virginia Tech Athletics/Dave Knachel)
Field Goals

As good as Joey Slye has been on kickoffs, he has struggled a little bit with field goals. There is no question that he has the leg to hit one from about anywhere once you cross the 50, but his accuracy has been the big issue. It seems to be recently that Slye struggles to handle the pressure in making one when the game is close. It showed against West Virginia when he missed two field goals that could have put the Hokies up 10 points both times. He also missed one against Clemson when Tech could have really used some points. I have touched on it before on here, but it seems far too often Slye wants to try to draw the football instead of kicking it straight through the uprights. This is what a lot of kickers do at the professional level and much like golf, drawing the ball can actually give you some added yardage. The problem Slye seems to be having is being able to draw the ball back to the left after kicking it out to the right. In turn, this is causing him to miss wide right each time. For the last two seasons, this has been a major issue for Joey and it always ends with him just squaring up and kicking the ball straight instead of trying to draw it. I'm not sure why the coaches haven't addressed this with him and told him to stop trying to draw it up until now, but it seems he has given up on it as he was a perfect 3-3 against Boston College. I really hope Joey has cleaned this issue up and can start getting a little more accurate through the final stretch as we might need him to win a game or two for us.

Field goal kicking grade so far: B-

As much as Tech likes to block punts, they also like to try to block field goals. Often times a good rush on a field goal attempt might not get a block, but can cause the kicker to rush the kick and miss the field goal. Teams are currently kicking at a success rate of 50% on the Hokies and Tech has one block on the year. I'll take this stat and hope to see that success rate go down as the season continues and the Hokies can hopefully still be disruptive. Although I'll be honest, watching Tech block field goal attempts is probably my favorite thing, so I'm hoping we see some more as the year goes on.

Field goal defense grade so far: A-

Overall

The stats don't lie on this one, ranked 6th in the nation in special teams efficiency is pretty dang good. I think we all would like to see the Hokies improve on field goal attempts and on kickoff returns but right now, this unit is fairly solid. There is no doubt though that to this point, Oscar Bradburn has been the special teams MVP with his ability to switch the field on opponents. I'm hoping we don't have to see him kick it as much in the second half of the season, but if he does, hopefully he can continue to impress. I would say that Tech is really relying on this unit to win some games for them this year and to this point they have answered the call pretty well. There is still a lot of football to be played but the special teams group for Tech in 2017 has been pretty good.

Overall special teams grade: A-