Gaither aims for Virginia’s special teams to make a difference

By Kenneth Cross correspondent

Keith Gaither (Photo: UVA Athletics)

Virginia special teams and running back coach Keith Gaither has a myriad of coaching talents on a football field, as he has been a wide receivers coach for the last 12 seasons at Elon, Ball State and Army.

Now as he opens the door to his career at Virginia, he has doubled the duty in operating what he hopes will be a solid and impactful special teams unit with the Cavaliers. 

It has been an impactful pre-season camp as competition has been a key in trying to get the correct players in positions which can make the kicking game or receiving game a major part of Coach Tony Elliott’s program at Virginia.

Gaither is looking at how the Cavaliers can set up their offense via return yardage, whether it is on kickoff returns or punt returns.

“In reference to the return game, it has changed so much, especially with punt returns, especially with all the different formations,” he said. “The first thing you have to do is make sure you cover the edges.”

Gaither has a solid returner in Billy Kemp IV, and he wants others to step up to join Kemp. Last season, Kemp had 16 punt returns and averaged 5.81 yards on each. In addition, he averaged 16.4 yards on five kickoff returns.

“I want to be a return team because we have a really good scheme and I think the kids understand it,” Gaither said. “In the kicking game, we want to be ultra-aggressive and be really sound.”

Many people do not realize that special teams has plays and formations that are called in relationship to offenses and defenses. It becomes an interesting study when you go to a coach’s clinic and a special teams coach takes over the microphone and the grease board.

“You get so many formations,” acknowledged Gaither. “The last thing you want to do is give up a fake and you don’t cover the eligible receiver, and then you will be looking for another job.”

Watch kicking teams in college football or the NFL, and pay particular attention when players count how many of their opponents are on the field. Sometimes on some teams, players can tip off their teammates in those counts based on what they know about special teams performers.

Gaither discussed how punter and long snapper have been two special teams positions with inherent competition. 

Fort Wayne, Ind., native Daniel Sparks looks like he could be the punter, while kicker Brendan Farrell could figure into the position as well. 

“[Sparks] has a huge leg, he is long, he is athletic, and then right behind him in the punting game is Brendan Farrell, who has been productive all of camp,” said Gaither.

Farrell will likely fit in as the kicker, as he made 34 of 34 extra points last season and hit 11 of 13 field goals. 

“It is tight, and there is not much difference between the two at each position and we will continue to evaluate up until next Tuesday,” explained Gaither. “By that time, we should be able to solidify a starter at each position.”

With punting being such a huge aspect of football at any level, Gaither has a game plan for the usage of the punt. The Cavaliers averaged 38.9 yards per punt last season.

“Our philosophy in each aspect when we talk about punting, we take the approach to number one, we are going to protect,” explained Gaither. “We are going to get the ball kicked and we are going to come for it.”

Covering the edges will make sure that a speedy returner can’t get to the outside and flip field position with a large return that could also put the team in immediate field goal range, or even in the red zone where the offensive play calling becomes markedly different.

“We have to make sure we possess the football,” commented Gaither. “I am not sure we are going to be a blocking team, but we have to make sure we are going to get the ball back.”