Point of emphasis: Virginia’s awful showing on special teams

By Jerry Ratcliffe

Photo: UVA Athletics

After fielding some of the worst special teams in the nation the past two years, Virginia has made those units a high priority during the spring.

While Keith Gaither is UVA’s designated special teams coach and the Cavaliers have essentially coached those units by committee, most of the blame has to fall on the shoulders of head coach Tony Elliott. It’s Elliott’s program and he has allowed the inefficiency of special teams to negatively impact his first two seasons on the job.

In 2022, Virginia ranked No. 90 in FBS football in special teams play. Last year, the Cavaliers were even worse.

In 2023, UVA gave up more special teams touchdowns to opponents than any program in the country. Two punt blocks for touchdowns in particular likely cost the Cavaliers a chance to win two games: a one-point loss to JMU and a one-score loss at Louisville.

Virginia’s punt team was 12th in the ACC (out of 14 teams) and the kickoff team was next-to-last.

Gaither said Wednesday that the Cavaliers have made improvements in the special teams area, even though several key personnel have been missing or hampered by injuries. Gaither also reported that Elliott has been “very hands-on” from staff meetings to reviewing film to on field coaching to team meetings.

“I think we got better,” Gaither said.

Gaither pointed to the gray hairs on his head when he was asked about UVA’s kickoff coverage unit, which was putrid last season, but pointed out that there has been a big emphasis on ball location, meaning an attempt to kick the ball into the end zone.

“On a serious note, 80 percent of most people kick touchbacks and I compared that ours, which was more like 60 percent, so we have to get that improved,” Gaither said.

Last season, of Virginia’s 58 kickoffs, only 20 were touchbacks, the next-to-fewest in the ACC.

“We’re working on it, we’re still not there yet and we have a ways to go,” said Gaither, who noted that punter Daniel Sparks has been working on kickoffs as well. “Because we have some guys who can run and cover, we’re trying to squeeze and condense the field.”

Gaither noted that when UVA looked at recruiting skilled players from the portal, the staff only chose guys who could also play special teams, which could add to the athleticism of those units.

Meanwhile, Gaither believes the Cavaliers will be stronger in both return games, punts and kickoffs. The addition of Notre Dame transfer Chris Tyree has the staff beaming over the possibilities. Tyree was an effective return man for the Irish, compiling 1,059 yards in kick returns over his career.

“At the top of the list is Chris Tyree because he’s done it in games and he’s done it at a high level, so I will be surprised if he’s not the guy,” Gaither said. “He’s very confident when the ball is in his hands, reading the block, knowing what to do with it, and he’s very confident with his ability to run fast.”

Tyree, Suderian Harrison, Ethan Davies and others are under consideration as punt returners, while Tyree, Kobe Pace, Harrison and others are candidates as kickoff return specialists.

True freshman Kam Courtney, a wide receiver from Manassas and state champion Freedom High School, enrolled early to get a jump start on his career and has been impressive in spring drills.

“He brings a smile to my face,” Gaither said. “He’s a real football player. He’s missed days because of a hamstring, but he’ll be mentioned with special teams as a return man. He’s natural, he’s fearless, so I expect him to contribute, maybe as a returner or maybe other aspects of the kick return. He’s got a bright future.”

Gaither said there has been more emphasis placed on fundamentals in all aspects of special teams.