Just more than two minutes into the second half Saturday at Florida State, Virginia junior tailback Perry Jones retreated to his team’s goal line to catch a 56-yard punt. Jones fielded the ball just barely into the end zone, and because it was a very close call – especially in real time – as to where Jones caught the ball, he was gang tackled immediately by three Seminoles players.
Initially, Florida State thought it had just earned a safety, and without the aid of a replay, it wasn’t initially clear whether the Seminoles were right. But the referees ruled it a touchback, and television replays eventually confirmed as much.
Still, it was a risky play for Jones to make, one of many risky plays that Virginia’s punt returners have made this season. On Wednesday, Coach Mike London said Jones’s questionable decision to try to field the third-quarter punt against Florida State was the result of a strong wind gust.
The greater issue, though, is a Virginia punt return unit that continues to struggle to gain any sort of consistent production. Per usual, field position* will be important Saturday when the Cavaliers host Virginia Tech, and only two ACC teams have averaged more punt returns per game this season than Virginia.
Virginia Tech has allowed opponents to gain an average of 4.8 yards per punt return this season, a mark that ranks No. 3 in the ACC (and No. 19 in the nation). The Cavaliers, meantime, are averaging 6.4 yards per punt return, which ranks No. 8 in the conference.
* Speaking of field position, here is where Virginia and Virginia Tech stand in terms of kickoff returns this season: Virginia ranks No. 4 in the ACC in kickoff return average (21.5 ypr), while Virginia Tech ranks No. 11 (19.3ypr). In terms of opponent kickoff return average, Virginia ranks No. 9 (21.2 ypr allowed) and Virginia Tech ranks No. 11 (21.8 ypr allowed).
Virginia relied primarily on true freshman wide receiver Dominique Terrell as its punt returner for most of the season, but Jones assumed that role late in the Cavaliers’ 31-21 win over Duke on Nov. 12 and kept it during the Florida State game. Terrell had averaged 4.4 yards in 14 punt returns.
Jones – who returned one punt 21 yards against Duke – returned three punts Saturday at Florida State and posted a 5.7-yard average. His longest return was nine yards.
But on two occasions, Jones made questionable decisions while back to return a Seminoles punt. Early in the second quarter, Jones attempted to return a punt off a bounce at the Virginia 9-yard line. He touched the ball but could not secure it and had to lunge forward to cover up the ball at the 11-yard line.
Then there was Jones’s retrieval of a punt at the Virginia goal line in the third quarter.
“I don’t know if you noticed or not, but there was a wind that was blowing towards the big scoreboard area, and he was standing on the 10-yard line,” London said Wednesday. “Typically, you tell the returner to stand on the 10-yard line and don’t back up to catch the ball, but when that ball was kicked Perry was tracking it and all of the sudden it just kind of took off on him.
“He backed up a couple steps, caught it and his momentum took him into the end zone, and so you don’t have to bring the ball out when you catch it in the end zone. It did look more dramatic than what it actually was. Once he stepped in there, he didn’t have to bring it out.”
Jones didn’t have much choice, because he was taken to the ground immediately.
On Florida State’s final punt of the night, Virginia sent senior cornerback Chase Minnifield back as the returner, though Minnifield and London said Wednesday the Cavaliers were in a “defensive safe call,” meaning they were on the watch in case the Seminoles attempted any trickery.
Minnifield was the team’s primary punt returner last season, averaging 6.5 yards per punt return in 2010. It’s possible the Cavaliers could turn to him if Jones has more issues Saturday against Virginia Tech, but it seems likely they’ll stick with Jones for the time being.
“I have no issues with the punt return guys right now,” London said. “One [on Saturday] was a safe look, two of them were opportunities to try to advance the ball and one was a decision that got away from Perry because of the elements.”