Everything about 24th-ranked Virginia's game against No. 8 Virginia Tech Saturday night spells trouble for Donnie Scott.
The senior Virginia punter says he's hitting only about one-quarter of his kicks the way he wants to. He's also breaking in a new long-snapper, and miscommunication between them already has resulted in a handful of bad snaps and one blocked kick. A special teams blunder of any kind could be deadly to the young Cavaliers defense, which has little margin for error against the Virginia Tech offense. And the Hokies' vaunted punt-coverage unit is just itching to get its first block of 1999.
But Scott's not worried. "I improved a lot in the offseason and I just haven't shown it yet," said Scott, who averaged 42.6 yards on 58 punts in 1998, which tied the third-best average in school history. "It just hasn't shown up for me this year."
The St. Albans graduate is aware of the challenges Saturday's game presents for Virginia (3-1), which is coming off an impressive 45-40 defeat of Brigham Young in Utah. The Hokies (3-0) have blocked an NCAA-best 73 kicks in 140 games during Coach Frank Beamer's 13 seasons.
"They cause a lot more problems than most people do," Cavaliers Coach George Welsh said. "We're going to have to be very conscious of that this week and not have a punt blocked. That can change the game."
Scott escaped untouched during the Virginia's 36-32, come-from-behind win over the Hokies last season, a result of then-long snapper Dillon Taylor's skill and Scott's ability to release punts quickly and vertically. Scott, who is 6 feet 5 and 210 pounds, has a strong leg, built from years of playing basketball for St. Albans and, for one year, Division III Catholic University. He is a contender for all-Atlantic Coast Conference honors, mainly because of his power (he had a school-record five punts for 60 yards or more last season), and hang time, which allowed teammates to pin 23 of his punts inside the opponents' 20-yard line, second-best in school history behind all-American Will Brice's 26 in 1995.
"He makes a hell of a difference," said Jermaine Lauzon, a sophomore cornerback who plays extensively on the special teams unit. "He gives us a lot of time to get down there and make plays."
Taylor elected not to return for a fifth year and has been replaced by tight end Adam Westcott and reserve quarterback David Rivers. Rivers, so used to taking snaps, is learning the position steadily but remains inconsistent.
"I'm definitely getting more confident with Dave," Scott said. "Last year with Dillon, I knew where the ball was coming, so I didn't have to think about that. This year, I have to think first about catching the ball, then about punting. A lot of it is me trying to get comfortable with Dave, so I don't think about the snap."
Scott has a 42.6-yard average on 15 punts this season, including five inside the opponent's 20-yard line and only one touchback.
"It's still very new to me," Scott said. "My technique has improved a lot. That's what [the coaches] told me in the offseason. It's just yet to show this year."