By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — He’s carried the ball only once from scrimmage this season, but running back Daniel Hamm has found other ways to contribute to the University of Virginia football team.
Hamm, a junior from Wytheville in Southwest Virginia, ranks seventh among ACC players with an average of 9.6 yards per punt return. This is his first year in that role at Virginia, though he returned punts and kickoffs at Fort Chiswell High School.
This is the Cavaliers’ first season under head coach Bronco Mendenhall, and Hamm lobbied the new staff for an opportunity as a returner.
“I definitely wanted a chance to do it,” Hamm said, “because it’s always been something I’ve been interested in, and I knew they wanted a guy that could [reliably] catch the ball, so that was really something I focused on and worked hard on doing.”
Indeed, Mendenhall said, the “criteria I gave our staff [coming] out of fall camp was I want whoever catches it best and most, meaning ball security was first, and whatever else happens after that, I said, is a bonus. But whomever we trust the most, and Daniel was the clear choice with that. He now is just becoming fearless and confident.”
At Scott Stadium last Saturday, against No. 5 Louisville, Hamm returned three punts for 71 yards.
“Last game was his best game,” Mendenhall said, “and there were times on the headset where the coaches were saying, `Fair-catch it, fair-catch it, fair-catch it,’ and then he’d catch it and get 10 [yards], and they’re saying, `Great decision.’ ”
Hamm had a 40-yard return to the Louisville 7 that he nearly broke for a touchdown.
“If I’d put one last move on the punter, maybe dipped in and then back out, I probably would have beat him to the pylon,” Hamm said. “But he had a pretty good angle, and I was just happy to be able to get as far as I did.”
The Cavaliers do not tackle when they practice special teams. Even so, Hamm said, those periods pay dividends on game day, “because the guys up front are still battling on the line and trying to get great hold-up at practice. And that’s what’s really been the biggest difference.
“I’ve been looking more comfortable doing it, because they’ve been working harder and harder and doing better and better at getting great hold-up at the line and giving me more time to catch the punt and get as many yards as I can. Great job by those guys up front.”
Not only does he return punts, Hamm starts on three other special-teams units: punt, kickoff return and kickoff.
“I love special teams,” he said. “Just knowing I can make a difference there, it’s huge. Anything I can do for the team is something I’m proud to do.”
From his role as a contain man when Virginia punts, Hamm said he’s learned that the receiving team’s work at the line of scrimmage is “the biggest thing. When guys get hold-up at the line, that makes a tremendous difference in getting a return. Because when I can’t get down the field as fast as I want to, that’s so many more yards that the returner is able to get if there’s no one else there.”
As Mendenhall noted, fearlessness is an essential quality for a good punt-returner.
“It’s one of those things you really can’t think about,” Hamm said, “because if you think about it, it’s too late and you’re going to make a mistake or something. I trust that the referees are going to give me time and protect me, and I trust my guys are going to get great hold-up. I try to do my part and catch the ball and get it upfield, or fair catch if I need to and get the ball back to the offense.”
The Wahoos also have been productive on kickoff returns. True freshman Joe Reed ranks fifth in the ACC with an average of 25.3 yards per return.
NO RUSH: In its 32-25 loss to Louisville, Virginia broke out a new look on offense. To try to limit time of possession for the explosive Cardinals, the Cavaliers’ offense huddled between plays.
UVA’s players — on both sides of the ball — said they liked the change, and Mendenhall indicated this week that the offense might huddle again this weekend.
At 3 p.m. Saturday, Virginia (2-6 overall, 1-3 ACC) meets Wake Forest (5-3, 2-2) at BB&T Field in Winston-Salem, N.C.
The slower pace gave quarterback Kurt Benkert “a chance to be exactly right, in terms of how he’s framing the play,” Mendenhall said Monday. “It was nice to slow it down just a hair in that regard to address the previous six quarters and just reframe, reset, and go one play at a time … So those two things married nicely, and most likely will be considered strongly going forward.
“I can’t say definitively on that yet, but I liked the result, and I liked the way that it fit our current team and where we were.”
IRONMAN: Inside linebacker Micah Kiser, who leads the ACC in tackles (11.4 per game), has played every defensive snap for Virginia this season.
“So he’s physically just amazing in terms of stamina,” said Mendenhall, who’s also the Cavaliers’ defensive coordinator. “But what’s allowing him to make the plays he’s making is the time and investment and preparation he’s putting in. He rarely is wrong. So when you have a player like that and [junior safety Quin Blanding], those two, their production alone is so tilted in terms of the rest of our defense, but it’s intentional. They are where they’re supposed to be because of how mature and how slow the game is to them. It’s slow because all the repetition they’ve already played before they played the game. They’re amazing kids.”
Blanding, a junior from Virginia Beach, is second in the ACC in tackles (10.4 per game). Kiser is a redshirt junior from Baltimore.
“Micah is a natural, but he’s worked and he’s earned that,” Mendenhall said, “meaning that there’s no one that studies film more obsessively, no one that is more of a master of the game currently on our team than he in his position. So the work he’s put in allows him to be so much more anticipatory in nature, meaning he knows where plays are going.”
LEARNING CURVE: Virginia opened the Mendenhall era on a down note, losing 37-20 to FCS member Richmond on Sept. 3 at Scott Stadium. A week later, at Oregon, the Cavaliers played harder and better but fell 44-26.
Heading into the season, Mendenhall said Monday, “I didn’t know our team at the level that I needed to, and I didn’t give them their best opportunity in Game 1 and didn’t give them their best opportunity in Game 2.
“After those two games, we made a significant change in our program, in our teaching and learning format, and really tried to basically get an extra game per week just in terms of repetition [at practice] … From where we are now, I don’t recognize where we started. However, I have learned, and our team has learned. So I’m loving that process, and there’s nothing easy about it, nor will there be going forward. But we’re giving our team a better chance now than we did early to be able to reach their potential each game and each season.”
BREAKOUT YEAR: Injuries have slowed junior defensive Andrew Brown at times, but he’s still having his best season as a Cavalier.
He’s second in the team in tackles for loss (7.5) and sacks (four), and he’s also broken up two passes and recovered a fumble.
“He’s maturing, and he’s trying really hard,” Mendenhall said, “and he’s transforming kind of right before our eyes into a more mature, more capable, more trustworthy, more responsible person and player all at the same time, and he’s enjoying it.”
There are still plays on which Brown will “do things where I’m wondering where he’s going and what’s he doing,” Mendenhall said, “but now more often he’s doing it how he’s supposed to do it, and he’s putting a string together, and a season together that, much like our team, was kind of wild and aggressive and someplace different mentally [early in the year] than where it is now, and he’s starting to look like a really good college football player.”
Brown, who came to UVA as a heralded recruit out of Oscar Smith High in Chesapeake, did not have a significant role on the defense as a true freshman in 2014 and again last season. But he’s thriving under the new coaching staff and looks forward to coming to the McCue Center every Monday.
“You come in ready to work,” Brown said. “One thing that we always say is when you are doing something you love, it doesn’t feel like a job. You just come in there ready and anticipating the work that’s coming toward you, so you are ready to attack it like that. It’s like, `Hey, I’m with my brothers. Let’s do this thing,’ and when you have that mindset, I feel like it just makes the week better instead of, `Dang, we’re coming in this week after a loss. We’re about to get chewed out.’ We don’t have that feeling anymore. We’re just like, `OK, we’re going to take this constructive criticism and just got forth from there.’ That’s what it is.”