It’s no secret Virginia Tech has won a lot of games under Frank Beamer because of special teams.
And history shows that few teams have been victimized more by the Hokies’ special-teams units than the University of Miami.
Since 1987, Virginia Tech has scored 52 special-teams touchdowns and blocked 132 kicks. The Hokies have blocked 10 kicks against the Hurricanes and have three returns on special teams for scores against UM — including their last one against UM on a blocked punt in 2009.
Last year, though, it wasn’t a blocked kick or a return that doomed the Canes in a 42-24 loss at Sun Life Stadium. It was self-inflicted wounds.
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In a span of 11 minutes and 21 seconds in the first half, Virginia Tech flipped a 7-0 deficit into a 21-7 lead after Stacy Coley fumbled a punt return, Artie Burns fumbled a kick return and a bad snap forced punter Pat O’Donnell to his knees at the UM 17.
Few in Coral Gables have forgotten about Miami’s worst night of last season on special teams. And if any players have, the guy in charge has reminded them plenty this week.
“We’re going to have to be good on special teams Thursday night,” coach Al Golden said. “This is going to be a great challenge, obviously, going against Virginia Tech in Blacksburg from a special-teams standpoint.”
Miami hasn’t exactly shined on special teams this season.
Louisville ran back a kickoff for a touchdown in the opener. A bad snap on a punt led to Florida A&M’s only touchdown a week later. And the return game — one of the most explosive in the country last season (UM led the country with 13 kickoff returns with 30 yards or more) — has been nonexistent for the Canes (4-3, 1-2 Atlantic Coast Conference).
Golden, though, said he’s beginning to see progress in some areas.
“Obviously, our [kick] placements are better right now,” he said. “[Kicker Michael] Badgley [5 of 6 on field goals has] has kind of settled in. Our coverage unit on kickoff coverage has settled in. It’s hard to erase the long [return versus Louisville]. It’s always going to kill you in your stats all year. But now with [Justin] Vogel kicking off, we’ve been better the last two weeks.
“You’re never satisfied with special teams because there are so many moving parts. [But] I’m happier.”
As usual, the Hokies (4-3, 1-2) are dangerous on special teams. Last week, defensive end Dadi Nicolas blocked the team’s first kick of the season — a field goal — in a 21-16 loss at Pittsburgh. Two games prior to that against Western Michigan, the Hokies returned a fumble on the opening kickoff for a touchdown.
Although the Hokies haven’t returned a kickoff longer than 30 yards (UM has allowed six this season), freshman Greg Stroman has three punt returns of more than 20 yards (tied for 10th nationally) and is a dangerous threat.
UM’s punt coverage ranks ninth nationally (3.0-yards-return average), and Vogel ranks 21st with a 44.46 average. Of his 28 punts, 14 have resulted in fair catches, and 13 kicks have been pinned inside the 20.
But this week, with starting long-snapper Ronnie Regula lost to a season-ending knee injury, Vogel will take snaps from a new long-snapper: junior Frank Gabriel, who has served as the team’s short snapper. Gabriel has never long snapped in a college game.
“Yeah, there definitely will be some nerves, but for the most part I’m good,” said Gabriel, who went to the same high school in New Jersey as Golden. “I actually [short] snapped in Nebraska, which was very loud as well. So that was a good game to get experience.”
Vogel said he has confidence in Gabriel. UM has yet to have a kick get blocked all season.
“I know [the Hokies] take good pride in their special teams across the board, and they like to bring pressure,” Vogel said. “But I’m not too worried about it. It’s not like [Frank is] coming in like a freshman not knowing what to do. We’ve taken snaps all summer, alternating reps.”
Golden said Antonio Crawford, Artie Burns, Deon Bush and Thurston Armbrister have all done “a phenomenal job” on punt coverage. The kickoff coverage team, which has had more breakdowns, has a much younger group working on it this season.
So what needs to improve to help sophomore Coley break free on a punt or kick return?
“Blocking, timing, spacing, it’s all the same,” Golden said. “I think Stacy did a good job hitting [the holes versus Cincinnati]. We’ve just got to hold our blocks a little bit better.”