By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — The tough-love approach that Ron Prince favored is gone, and punter Jimmy Howell doesn’t miss it.
Prince was UVa’s special-teams coordinator last season, and it was not uncommon to see him shouting at Howell on the sideline during games. Anthony Poindexter’s style is more like that of Mike London, the Cavaliers’ new head coach.
“Coach London came in and was like, ‘Hey, I’m not going to have anyone belittle my players. We’re going to get on you, but we’re not going to belittle you,’ ” Howell said.
“With Coach Prince, he’s an extremely smart man, and I did learn a whole lot from him, whether it be him from yelling at me or him pulling me aside and telling me something. But it is a little tough sometimes, whenever you do have a coach like that.”
Poindexter, who ran Virginia’s secondary in 2009, is the only holdover from Al Groh’s staff among London’s assistants. London put Poindexter, a former All-American at UVa, in charge of safeties and special teams.
“He’s so poised and just sort of jokes around with us, but he’s still really tough,” Howell said. “It really allows us to be at peace out there on the field.”
A junior from Florence, S.C., Howell is in his third season as UVa’s starting punter. He averaged 39 yards per punt as a true freshman in 2008 and 40.1 yards last season.
Leg strength never has been an issue for Howell, and it’s easy to see why. At 6-6, 240 pounds, he dwarfs many major-college linebackers. He booted a 58-yard punt in 2008 and a 53-yarder last year.
“Biggest punter I’ve ever seen,” said Mike McCabe, Howell’s offseason coach and the founder and president of One On One Kicking in Prattville, Ala. “The guy can eat, I’ll tell you that.”
Howell’s problem has been inconsistency, but he’s confident that issue is behind him. He has newfound peace of mind, he said, thanks to his offseason training with McCabe, the personality of UVa’s coaching staff, and positive developments in his personal life.
“I really have the right motivation now,” Howell said. “I came to Christ this past summer, and just everything seems to be falling in place. I have a wonderful family, a wonderful girlfriend, a wonderful coach, just the right people to play for.”
What has impressed Howell most about the new staff is its “positive attitude,” he said. “They’re always talking with us, and not talking at us. It’s always a learning experience, no matter what. Instead of a lecture, it’s us being able to talk with them and share our experience and them sharing theirs with us.”
The coaches get fired up with the players, Howell added, and can “easily relate to us. They know what’s going on in our classrooms, our personal lives, with girlfriends and all that stuff. You can just go and sit down and talk to them. So it’s like a personal relationship. And you want to play for someone you have a personal relationship with.”
Through two games, Howell is averaging 42 yards per punt. Twice on Sept. 11 at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, he placed punts inside USC’s 15-yard line, or his average would be higher.
“He’s a young man that’s a team player,” London said. “He’s not a selfish player … [USC] had an outstanding and dynamic punt-returner, and I think Jimmy did a great job of placing the ball where it needed to get placed. He’s been a very, very bright element for us in the kicking game.”
Howell played a key role in one of the game’s most memorable plays in L.A. He started at quarterback when he played at West Florence High, and he flashed his passing skills on a perfectly executed fake punt against an unsuspecting USC defense.
“We had run that play in practice, and Coach had always told us, ‘This is a good play,’ so it had always been ingrained in my mind that this was going to be a good play,” Howell recalled. “I didn’t know we were even going to run until I was literally halfway out there and they said, ‘All right, this is the play.’ I was like, ‘OK … I wasn’t expecting that, but that’s fine.’ So I didn’t have time to really think about the throw.”
Danny Aiken snapped the ball to Howell, who hesitated for a moment before tossing a short pass to tight end Colter Phillips, who turned it into an apparent 36-yard gain.
“It was fun,” Howell said.
Alas, the Wahoos’ delight was short-lived. Despite the UVa coaching staff’s protests, the officiating crew, from the Pac-10, incorrectly ruled that an illegal block had been made, a call that wiped out Phillips’ gain. The crew later was punished for blowing what proved to be a pivotal call in Virginia’s 17-14 loss.
As if that didn’t hurt the ‘Hoos enough, their remaining opponents are sure to be guarding against that play whenever Howell lines up to punt.
“It’s the same with a lot of fakes whenever you run them, whether it’s field goal or punt, or even a surprise onside kick,” Howell said. “You sort of get one chance, and then you can’t really do it for a long time, or maybe not even that whole season. But that’s when you’ve just got to become creative and figure out something else.”
Howell’s mother is a nurse. His father is a perfusionist, a job in which he operates a machine that pumps blood throughout the body of the patient during heart surgery.
Both of his parents work in a hospital, and “I came here thinking I was going to do medicine, or something like that,” Howell said. “And then I found out just how tough it would be with football.”
And so he’s now taking courses in nursing, as well as psychology. After graduating from UVa, Howell hopes to play in the NFL, and McCabe says he’s talented enough to do so. Howell has other interests, though.
“I want to help people,” he said. “I potentially want to be a teacher and a coach, but what better way to help people than to be a nurse?”
As UVa (1-1) prepares for its next game, Saturday afternoon against VMI (1-1) at Scott Stadium, Howell is trying to help another part of the special-teams operation, the three players at the fore of the field-goal group: Aiken, holder Jacob Hodges and kicker Robert Randolph.
Against USC, Randolph missed from 45 and 35 yards. For the year, he’s 0 for 3 on field goals, and Virginia’s other kicker, Chris Hinkebein, is 0 for 1.
“We call ourselves Team Kick, so whenever one person’s down, we build him back up, or try to at least,” Howell said.