CHARLOTTESVILLE — After a disastrous special teams performance against Georgia Tech on Thursday night, first-year football coach Tony Elliott knows Virginia was lucky to leave Atlanta with a victory. And he made sure his players understand that won’t be a winning formula going forward.
“I told the team we should have lost the game based off of how we played on special teams,” Elliott said Tuesday during his weekly press conference. “You miss field goals and extra points, you’re getting punts blocked, you should lose the football game.”
Virginia won 16-9 against the Yellow Jackets, but Elliott said the special teams issues have to be corrected for the team to find any sustained success going forward. UVa (3-4, 1-3 ACC) begins a four-game home stand Saturday when it hosts Miami (3-4, 1-2).
Going into the Georgia Tech game, Elliott and his staff were studying video of the Yellow Jackets’ season-opening loss to Clemson, Elliott’s previous school. He took notice of whom the Tigers deployed on special teams.
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“I see all of these starters, from both sides of the ball, on special teams. And these are high draft picks,” said Elliott. “On our special teams, I’m having to beg guys to go give the effort on special teams. I’ve had to fire some of the older guys because I’m just not getting the effort.”
Elliott cited linebacker James Jackson as an example.
“James Jackson is going to be a really good football player. He’s probably the most talented of all the linebackers,” said Elliott. “But he was playing on kickoff, he was playing on punt and he wasn’t giving the same effort. He was kind of taking those plays off because he was conserving himself for defense. So I ended up firing him to make a point. But now, no, I’m going to demand it and we’re going to get it, you’re going to give it.”
Now, Elliott is shifting back to using more starters on special teams, starting with Saturday’s date with Miami.
At practice Tuesday morning, the Cavaliers had a heightened focus on special teams, senior cornerback Anthony Johnson said.
“Just seeing guys being more locked in, being more detailed,” said Johnson, who is on the punt return and kickoff coverage units. “The guys that are hanging out on the sidelines just locking in on what’s going on as far as the drills.”
Thursday’s debacle — there also was a miscue on a kick return that left the team pinned at its 3-yard line and a leaping penalty on an attempted punt block that gave Tech a first down — certainly was a low point for the group, but UVa’s special teams have been prone to major miscues all season.
Brendan Farrell, who opened the year as the starting place-kicker, missed long field goals on the team’s first two possessions of a road loss to Syracuse. That a game also saw Virginia commit penalties on two kick returns, and Farrell’s replacement, freshman Will Bettridge, had an extra point blocked. The Cavaliers allowed a 57-yard return on the opening kick off.
Against Duke, Demick Starling lost a fumble on a kick return as he was trying to leap over a defender. Virginia also had a punt blocked in that game.
Billy Kemp IV fumbled a punt in the Cavaliers’ road loss at Illinois that the Illini scooped up and returned for a touchdown. The list goes on.
Virginia has been largely toothless in the return game. It ranks 12th in the 14-team ACC in punt return average (5.5 yards) and ninth in kick return average (21.8).
UVa special teams coordinator Keith Gaither also is the team’s running backs coach. It’s Gaither’s first time coordinating special teams. He’s on the sidelines on game days.
Elliott said, ideally, the entire staff will become more attuned to what’s going on with special teams, allowing for more efficient in-game adjustments. That’s how the program ran at Clemson, where Elliott served as an assistant for 11 years before taking over at UVa.
Elliott opened this year playing starters on his special teams units, but after finding many of them weren’t committed to giving full effort on those plays, he replaced them with younger players, ones who were hungry to make an impression. But those younger players lacked the game experience of the veterans and made costly rookie mistakes.
Now, he’s going back to his best.
“We’re going to take the approach that if you need plays off or you need to rest, you’re tired, you’re going to do it on offense and defense,” said Elliott. “We’re going to get our best personnel out on the field on special teams.”