Training Camp Preview -- Special Teams
Aug. 8, 2014
This is the seventh installment of a series in which VirginiaSports.com breaks down the 2014 football team by position.
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Nearly a decade has passed since a UVa football player returned a punt for a touchdown. The Cavaliers haven’t run back a kickoff for a TD in nearly four years.
Subpar play on special teams has hindered Virginia in recent seasons, and the hoped-for turnaround did not materialize in 2013, Larry Lewis’ first season as the units’ coordinator. Still, the Cavaliers are confident 2014 will be different.
All the kickers and punters from last season are back, as well as a veteran group of return specialists that includes seniors Darius Jennings and Khalek Shepherd and sophomore Taquan Mizzell. Many of the players who’ll block on returns are back from 2013, too.
“There’s a familiarity that they have with the system and the techniques, so we should be much better, and then you have the legs back as well,” head coach Mike London said before practice Wednesday.
“That’s an expectation for this team, that our special teams units should perform at a high level, and we’re expecting them to.”
One unit in particular stayed busy last season, and that was among the reasons the Wahoos finished with a 2-10 record. With 85 punts, Alec Vozenilek tied the single-season school record set by Russ Henderson in 1977.
“The punt team does not want to be out there if they don’t have to be,” Vozenilek said this week, “and I think this year we’ve got good quarterbacks, good wide receivers, good running backs. The offense should be good, and hopefully we won’t be out there as much as we were last year.”
After an injury sidelined Ian Frye after the fourth game, Vozenilek handled extra points and field goals as well as punts last season, and Dylan Sims took over on kickoffs. Frye is healthy again, and London would prefer to let Vozenilek focus on punting this fall.
“I’d like for Ian to be the guy that I saw in the spring,” London said. “He’s been battling a little bit of a back issue, but he should be OK. I just want to make sure that he knows that I believe in him and I’m very confident in him.
“Alec will do a great job being a punter. He’s already improved his hang time and the distance. So if possible, I’d like to keep those things separate.”
Sims could well continue to kick off, London added. “He’s got a strong leg. Obviously you want to have the best player that can do the things you need, but right now we’re looking at those three guys.”
Like its return teams, Virginia’s coverage units struggled in 2013. Out of 123 teams in the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision, the Wahoos ranked 89th nationally in kickoff return defense and 94th in punt return defense. Against North Carolina, UVa gave up an 85-yard punt return for a TD.
The return game produced similar numbers. UVa finished 78th in punt returns and 110th in kickoff returns.
This year, Vozenilek said, the players are more familiar with Lewis’ schemes and terminology, “and I think we should have a lot more success in those areas.”
Lewis, also the Cavaliers’ running backs coach, oversees the special teams, but his fellow assistants have roles, too. Safeties coach Mike Archer, for example, works with the return specialists.
Archer expects Mizzell, whose nickname is Smoke, to make a significant impact on kickoffs and punt returns this season, and so does London.
“I believe Smoke has an opportunity to be special,” London said.
Mizzell suffered an ankle injury early last season. He missed only two games but lacked his trademark explosiveness when he returned. Mizzell appeared tentative on special teams and finished the season with an average of only 16.5 yards per return.
“Getting hurt the second game of the season really kind of made it tough for me,” Mizzell said this week, “but now that I’m healthy I think I’ll do pretty well at it.”
As a senior at Virginia Beach’s Bayside High School in 2012, Mizzell returned kickoffs and punts. Does he want both jobs at UVa?
“Whatever helps the team, and whatever helps me make the team better, then I’m willing to do it,” Mizzell said.
Some of the Cavaliers likely to play leading roles on special teams this fall:
* No. 30, punter/kicker Alec Vozenilek (5-10, 190-pound senior, Richmond). “Voz” is heading into his third season as the Cavaliers’ starting punter. He averaged 41.2 yards per punt in 2013, with a long of 77 against Pittsburgh. It was a busy season for the former St. Christopher’s School star, who also kicked extra points and field goals for the final eight games after an injury to Ian Frye. Vozenilek finished the season 14 for 15 on extra points and 12 for 15 on field goals.
* No. 14, kicker Ian Frye (6-6, 200-pound junior, Bristol). Frye, who redshirted in 2011, handled most of the kickoff duties in `12 and was 3 for 5 on field goals that season, with a long of 30 yards. An injury limited him to four games last season. He was 3 for 4 on field goals, including a 53-yarder against BYU that tied for the third-longest in UVa history. Frye was 10 for 10 on extra points last year and also handled kickoffs in Virginia’s first three games.
* No. 91, kicker Dylan Sims (6-0, 190-pound sophomore, Lynchburg). After Frye got hurt, Sims took over on kickoffs last season. He averaged 61.3 yards on his 38 kicks.
* No. 6, kickoff returner Darius Jennings (5-11, 175-pound senior, Baltimore). Jennings, also a starting wide receiver, may well graduate as UVa’s career leader in kickoff return yards. Through three seasons, he has 1,162 yards, and the school record is 1,645. His career-long return, though, is a modest 37 yards, against Ball State last year. His career average is 20.8 yards per return.
* No. 23, punt returner/kickoff returner Khalek Shepherd (5-8, 200-pound senior, Upper Marlboro, Md.). Shepherd, one of the team’s most versatile players, has returned punts and kickoffs during his college career, and he remains an option on each unit. He’s returned 23 punts for 89 yards, with a long of 25 yards — all in 2012. Also that season, he returned 42 kickoffs for 929 yards, with a long of 72 yards.
* No. 4, punt-returner/kickoff returner Taquan Mizzell (5-10, 190-pound sophomore, Virginia Beach). Mizzell, slowed by an ankle injury as a true freshman last season, averaged only 16.5 yards on his 21 kickoff returns. But the former Bayside High star, who plays tailback at Virginia, has game-breaking ability in the open field and may well return punts this year, too.
* No. 11 punt returner/kickoff returner Divante Walker (5-11, 175-pound sophomore, Virginia Beach). A sensational tailback at Salem High, where he averaged 11.3 yards per carry as a senior in 2011, Walker is a reserve cornerback at UVa. He was used primarily on special teams last season.
* No. 22, kickoff returner Daniel Hamm (5-10, 190-pound redshirt freshman, Wytheville). Hamm appeared in two games last fall before suffering an injury for which he received a hardship waiver — and thus another year of eligibility — after the season. Hamm has yet to return a kick at UVa, but he displayed his running ability against VMI last year by rushing for 136 yards and two touchdowns.
* No. 2, punt returner/kickoff returner Kirk Garner (5-11, 180-pound redshirt freshman, Baltimore). Garner played several positions at Good Counsel High, also the alma mater of his UVa teammates Vincent Croce, Andre Levrone and Brendan Marshall. He returned 14 punts for 128 yards and also had a 78-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. Garner is a backup cornerback at Virginia.
* No. 50, long-snapper Tyler Shirley (6-3, 215-pound redshirt freshman, Midlothian). He also played wide receiver at James River High School, but special teams is Shirley’s focus at UVa, where he redshirted last season. He’s the leading candidate to replace Matt Fortin, Virginia’s long-snapper in 2011, ’12 and ’13.
* No. 66, long-snapper Jeb Byrne (6-3, 210-pound junior, McLean). A graduate of Georgetown Prep, Byrne has yet to play in a college game.