Virginia Football Position Preview: Special Teams

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After reviewing Wahoo’s quarterbacks and running backs earlier this week, today we continue our series of Virginia Cavaliers football position previews by evaluating UVA’s special teams units. While being a solid group overall in 2021, there wasn’t much that particularly stood out for UVA’s specialists last season. With an added emphasis on complementary football under Tony Elliott, that is set to change in 2022.

Returning players

Brendan Farrell, K/P

A UVA kicker last season, Farrell took the opportunity to replace Justin Duenkel against Wake Forest last year and has never looked back. During the season, he was 11/13 on field goals and 34/34 on extra points while closing in on the clutch in a few different contests, including big marks against Louisville and Miami. His season (and his entire career) came against the Hurricanes on a 43 yard run.

Now in his third season in Charlottesville, Farrell takes on a number of different duties. In fall camp, he practiced at both the punter and kicker and could theoretically complete the punt, kickoff and field goal/extra point duties for the Wahoos. Still, that’s unlikely, with Tony Elliott commenting that UVA’s approach will likely be to split the responsibilities among a few different players, including Farrell, Will Bettridge and Daniel Sparks.

Asked about Farrell at camp, Elliott mentioned how “he’s been looking good so far. Returned to his grove kicking the ball [as we’re] always making him do both. Still, the staff hopes that “with all three of these guys (Farrell, Bettridge, Sparks) we can spread out some of that workload and maybe let these guys focus more on one aspect of the kicking game. foot.”

Based on these comments and others the former Clemson OC has made, the likeliest spot for Farrell to fill seems to be the kickoff man with the chance to do more.

Justin Duenkel, K

After opening 2021 as the starting kicker, Duenkel missed time through an injury which paved the way for Farrell to step up and grab the job. Now, with Duenkel’s senior season approaching, an ACL injury has kept him out of spring and fall camp as he doesn’t seem likely to reclaim a major role if he returns from ‘a wound. Granted, injuries can still occur and things can change in no time. But, for now, Duenkel looks like the odd man on the kicking depth chart.

New faces

Will Bettridge, K.

The new kid on the block, Will Bettridge is perhaps the hottest specialist ever to come to UVA. Rated best kicker in the class of 2022 by Kornblue Kick and third via 247Sports, he has the chops to make a quick impact. Especially bearing in mind that kickers aren’t held to the same necessary physical development as young players in other positions, Bettridge could see some prime time presenting itself early on.

Elliott has previously praised the young leg, noting that “we call him ‘Little Walk-off Will.’ At first, I wasn’t sure if I was going to use that nickname for him. But I tell you what. he looks like he’s got pretty good nerves about him. In fact, the head coach mentioned how the staff put him “in a situation at the end of practice, [with] run down the line and treat it like it was the play on the line, a 48-yard field goal, he didn’t know it was going to happen and he came out and he hit it.

Such flattering words seem to indicate that Bettridge has a competitive edge in field goal/extra kick duties. He and Farrell are two good options for the position, with the former bringing confidence and a big leg and the latter bringing big game experience and know-how. Whoever loses this battle is likely to take responsibility at kickoffs.

Daniel Sparks, P.

A 6’6″ transfer from Minnesota, Sparks was brought in to replace Jacob Finn. After starting his career at the University of Louisiana-Monroe and impressing in the Sun Belt Conference, he was transferred to Minnesota in early 2021 but didn’t play last year.Now on Grounds, Sparks “definitely raised the level of competition to the punter”, according to Tony Elliott, as the Alabama native was the first name he mentioned when he was asked about the various kickers and punters.

Sparks also has kickoff experience having done so 33 times for ULM averaging 55.3 yards as well as 30 punts for 44.6 yards including five inside the line 20 yards.

It’s hard to predict whether Sparks or Farrell will take over. If Elliott really wants to split those roles between different guys, using Sparks as a punter and Farrell as an emergency backup would make sense. Of course, early season games against beaten in-state opponents like Richmond and Old Dominion should give the ‘Hoos time to test different options.

Returners (understood?!)

Billy Kemp IV, WR

As Virginia’s punt returner the past two seasons, Kemp IV is expected to reclaim that spot in 2022 after returning 16 for 95 yards in 2021. While under Mendenhall, the ‘Hoos generally reported fair catches – Kemp IV had seven returns for 80 yards in the first two games of the season, then nine for 15 the rest of the way – with Elliott at the helm, Kemp is expected to take on more responsibility as a returner in 2022.

He also worked as one of the kickoff returners last year with four returns for 82 yards, the best average on the team. Although with few options among younger players with less impact on the offense as a whole, Kemp IV can be protected and kept away from the kick return unit.

Mike Hollins, RB

First kick returner last season, Hollins would be expected to step away from that role this season as the coaching staff want him to focus more directly on the details of the running back position .

Perris Jones, RB

Another guy who returned a few kicks last season, Jones likely won’t be on return duty this season, especially since he’s currently UVA’s top running back and will be needed elsewhere in the field.

Ronnie Walker Jr., AR

The Indiana transfer missed most of the offseason with a spring injury, but currently looks set to make a comeback in September as he begins participating in fall camp drills. Although he didn’t return kicks last season, he could be used there in case Jones and Hollins are protected as the team’s top two rushers.

Devin Chandler, WR

The junior wide receiver returned four kicks last year for 85 yards including three for 73 against Notre Dame. He’s another body the ‘Hoos could send back there assuming their most valuable offensive assets are too important to risk.

Ethan Davies, WR

The extra is entering his second year after not appearing in any Wahoos games last season. But he’s one of the fastest guys in the program and shouldn’t be counted out for a comeback here or there. He particularly impressed in the spring game with a pair of long punt returns.

New arrivals

Xavier Brown, RB

The true freshman running back reportedly showed flashes at fall camp and, if the RB room is too full for him to get carried this year, the throwback could be the perfect place for him to play in. as a playmaker in space.

Long hanging

Ghosts

Lee Dudley, LS

Now a fifth-year senior, Dudley was Virginia’s long snapper in field goals and extra points in 2019, but missed 2020 through injury and then didn’t play in 2021 with others. guys who took over his job. Now that Tucker Finkelston and Danny Caracciolo are gone, the Richmond native and Woodberry Forest graduate is in pole position to reclaim his spot.

Luke Byrne, LS

Byrne, a sophomore, could also fill in the long snapper depth. Unlike Dudley and Livingston, he lacks some of the height and weight at 6’1″ and 217 pounds. He played tight end, linebacker and long snapper in high school, but he’s probably third on the depth chart before the ‘fall.

New arrivals

Aidan Livingston, LS

Probably Dudley’s biggest contest for snaps is Boston College transfer Aidan Livingston. Returning as a freshman in 2019, Livingston went all out as the Eagles had him taking field goals, extra points and punts. Since then his role has steadily diminished, working only as a sniper in 2020 and then not playing in any games in 2021.

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