published Tuesday, December 29th, 2009

Special teams a concern


by Wes Rucker
Audio clip

Frank Beamer

ATLANTA -- Electrifying quarterback Michael Vick vaulted Virginia Tech's football notoriety into nationally elite status, but "Beamerball" has probably been the most constant foundation for the Hokies' winning ways.

Beamerball, named after longtime Tech coach Frank Beamer, is a simple-sounding philosophy that's difficult to master -- scoring points at any time, from any place on the field.

Most teams can throw the ball in the end zone or run the ball over the goalline, but few if any programs spread the scoring wealth like Tech. The Hokies have accumulated an astounding 124 nonoffensive touchdowns in Beamer's 280 games.

In other words, as Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin said Monday, Tech is one of the worst opponents to face without a special teams coach. And that's essentially what UT will do in Thursday's Chick-fil-A Bowl, considering Eddie Gran left Knoxville last month for an associate head coaching position at Florida State.

"(Tech) and Florida ... are the two teams that have done the best job at special teams over the years," Kiffin said. "That was difficult on us, and it still is. Guys had to step up. We've really had to spend a lot of extra time on that."

Kiffin has said several times that he understood Gran's reasons for leaving, and he claims to harbor no ill will toward any man doing what he must for his family and career. He's praised Gran for staying in Knoxville two days after accepting the FSU job to analyze film and give UT a special teams scouting reporting on the Hokies.

Ultimately, though, the Vols opted to employ special teams tactics more familiar to assistants Ed Orgeron and Lance Thompson, who have temporarily handled most of the units since Gran's departure.

"That's a big deal, because Coach Gran took care of all our special teams to the point that no other coaches had to step in and help him with anything," said junior receiver Gerald Jones, UT's backup punt return man. "But I've got the trust and the faith in the coaches still here, that they'll put the time in to watch their film and help us do something to counteract that."

Even with Gran, the Vols weren't statistically spectacular on special teams. Daniel Lincoln's nagging quad injury caused several low field goal kicks, many of which were blocked -- including two in the fourth quarter of October's gut-crushing loss at archrival Alabama. Chad Cunningham has had splendid moments as a punter and kickoff specialist, but consistency issues have resulted in field position losses and big returns.

"A lot of people say we're in trouble because Gran's gone, but others say we weren't even that good on special teams even when he was here," said freshman David Oku, whose kick return skills have been a special teams plus for the Vols. "Either way, obviously Virginia Tech is a challenge. I got recruited a lot by them, and their special teams is no joke. You've really got to be on your Ps and Qs against them."

The Vols are 83rd out of 120 major Division I programs in net punting, 55th in punt return average, 70th in punt return defense, 28th in kickoff return average and 88th in kick return defense. Virginia Tech is ranked higher in each of those categories.

"Obviously, there's a reason they call it Beamerball," UT junior linebacker LaMarcus Thompson said. "They're as good on special teams as anybody you'll see, and probably the best you'll see."

Cunningham said he has placed even more emphasis the past month in getting his punts off in less than two seconds, because no one has blocked more than Tech in the past decade.

"The way they come off the ball ... they just bring the house," Cunningham said. "That's what they do when they come. They've got one returner, and everybody else is coming. It's kind of hard to block.

"We've been trying to scheme them up with a couple of things, because I'm sure they'll be coming after us. We've been watching a lot of film, trying to figure out some different things to do."

Beamer on Monday morning tried to downplay Gran's absence, as well as Tech's special teams' superiority over the Vols.

"They've had some field goals blocked, but they do a lot of good things in their special teams," Beamer said. "But I'll say this: I do think when you've got two teams that are very close ... I think special teams play becomes a critical part of the ball game."

Opposing coaches in the past have suggested that playing Virginia Tech in the middle of the season -- when you typically have just one week to get ready -- is an arduous task, and that extra work on special teams hinders preparation for the Hokies' offense and defense.

Beamer noted that UT has had ample time to focus on Tech ahead of a bowl matchup, though. And aside from that, he suggested many teams have enhanced their special teams in the past decade.

"I think, generally speaking, people are just a lot better in special teams play now -- not only against us, but just overall," he said. "I think about 15 years ago, you could scheme people a little bit more. But any more, it seems like everyone puts their better players on special teams. Tennessee does. They've got a lot of their good players out there. I think overall, it's harder to get an advantage in special teams than it was a few years back."

Other contacts for Wes Rucker are www.twitter.com/wesrucker and www.facebook.com/tfpvolsbeat.

about Wes Rucker...

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