By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE – When he talks about special teams – and he does so often and at length – Al Groh stresses his desire to see UVa block more punts and kicks this season.
He wants to see improvement when the Cavaliers are kicking, too.
Virginia won nine games and played in the Gator Bowl in 2007, in part because of the contributions of punter Ryan Weigand and kicker/punter Chris Gould. They were seniors that season, however, and Groh worried that their departures would hurt his 2008 team.
His concerns proved well-founded. The Wahoos made a modest 60 percent of their field-goal attempts in 2008 – though Robert Randolph was 3 for 4 after taking over the job – and Jimmy Howell’s average of 39 yards per punt ranked eighth in the ACC. Those were among the reasons that UVa finished 5-7 for the second time in three years.
Heading into his ninth season as coach of his alma mater, Groh has a new special-teams coordinator, Ron Prince, a former UVa assistant who returned from Kansas State with a number of strategies for improving the kicking game.
“It’s a critical area that we put a lot of attention into,” Groh said, “but in the long run, schemes won’t solve it. Only the kickers can solve it.”
Training camp opens Friday at UVa, and Randolph figures to battle sophomore Chris Hinkebein and freshman Drew Jarrett for the starting job. Howell, who like Randolph was a true freshman last season, is a virtual lock to handle the punting again this year.
At 6-6, 238 pounds, the Florence, S.C., native has great size for his position, and Howell had five punts of at least 50 yards in 2008. But he also had more misses than he’d care to remember.
“I don’t know closely other people looked at it,” Howell said, “but after each game I would evaluate myself, and every time it would always be 40 yards, 40 yards, 33, or 35, or something like that. I’d have good punts, and then every game I would always have that one short punt, and that’s what killed my average.”
When Weigand and Gould shared the job, Weigand generally punted when Virginia’s offense stalled outside the 50-yard line. Gould excelled at the pooch punts, often forcing opponents to start drives from inside the 10.
“He really had a knack inside the 50,” recalled Groh, who cited Gould’s contributions to wins over Florida State (in 2005) and Maryland (in ’07).
Howell’s challenge is to become equally adept in every punting situation.
“I’ve just been spending more time on consistency overall,” he said, “just trying to get the same kick every time instead of worrying about all the directional stuff. Like it’s really not directional. You’re kicking the same kicks, you’re just having to kick it to the right side or to the left side. And then as far as pooches go, just getting it down there within the 10-yard line, just out of bounds around the 10.”
Howell had no punts blocked last year, and he didn’t have to make any tackles. For that, he said, the other members of the punt team deserve “all the credit in the world.” And being thrust into a starting role three months out of high school – Virginia opened against mighty Southern California — was less nerve-wracking than it was “a dream come true.”
Howell worked with two punting gurus this summer – Mike McCabe and Chris Sailer – before returning to Charlottesville. Summer school ended for him Friday, and that was also the day his lease ran out.
“I didn’t have anywhere else to stay,” Howell said by phone yesterday from Lake Anna, where an aunt and uncle of his have a house. “I was either going to go home [to South Carolina] or come up here, and it was just easier to come up here.”
Randolph and long-snapper Danny Aiken joined him for a break that included fishing and jet skiing. Their focus is about to shift back to football.
“Now I’m obviously not a rookie,” Howell said. “Coming into my second year, I’m just trying to set the bar higher … and push for first-team all-ACC and what not, and I’m sure Rob and Danny want to do that as well.”