When it comes to punt returns, Coach Mike London said Saturday following Virginia’s 28-17 loss at North Carolina, you have to decide either to be a block team or a return team. Through the first three games of the season, it would seem the Cavaliers have opted for the former option.
Virginia is averaging 6.1 yards per punt return, which ranks No. 10 in the ACC and No. 75 in the nation. The Cavaliers haven’t fared much better on kickoff returns, where their 16.7-yard average ranks last in the ACC and ahead of only five FBS teams in the country.
There are several reasons for Virginia’s problems in the return game, but the focal point, special teams coordinator Anthony Poindexter said Tuesday, is the youth and inexperience of the Cavaliers’ returners.
True freshman wide receiver Dominique Terrell was identified as one of Virginia’s best options at punt returner early in training camp, and he’s been the team’s primary punt returner thus far.
Terrell has struggled not only in gaining yards once he fields a punt – he has averaged 3.8 yards on five punt returns – but also in determining which punts he should try to return, which ones he should fair-catch and which ones he should let hit the ground and be downed by an opposing team’s player. On Saturday, Terrell attempted to return two of North Carolina’s seven punts and gained no yards on either one.
“Anytime you put young kids out there, they’re going to struggle a little bit,” Poindexter said. “But I can’t put it all on them. We’ve got to do better with the hold up and getting on our blocks and stuff like that. We’re getting better each week. They’re getting better each week. We’re just going to keep moving.”
During Virginia’s season-opening 40-3 win over William & Mary, the Cavaliers returned three punts for an average of 14.7 yards. The following week, in a 34-31 win at Indiana, Virginia again fielded three punts and averaged 1.7 yards per return. Terrell’s two returns for zero yards on Saturday were the only ones the Cavaliers returned.
Opposing teams have punted 19 times to Virginia this season, and the Cavaliers have elected to return eight of them.
“The more and more punts [Terrell] sees, the better he’ll get with making” decisions on which ones to return, Poindexter said. “We just tell him to try to catch them all and try to return them all, but obviously it’s a little different when people are running down in your face. We’ve got to do a better job of making him feel comfortable that he can catch the ball and at least have the space to catch it and be able to move a little bit.”
As for Virginia’s overall approach, Poindexter said one of the reasons the team’s punt return average is low is because more and more teams across the country are employing shield formations in their punt units. In fact, Virginia is one of those teams.
A shield formation puts seven players in a punt team on the line of scrimmage and three large blockers directly in front of the punter. After the ball is snapped, most of the seven players on the line of scrimmage immediately head downfield to cover the punt. The three-man “shield” stays behind to guard the punter.
“People are averaging a yard or less against the return nationally versus that punt system,” Poindexter said. “That’s why a lot of people are going to it. We didn’t get a lot on returns Saturday, and neither did Carolina. It’s kind of a double-edged sword.
“That’s why everybody’s jumping into this shield punt to cut down on the punt returns because you get more guys free to get down the field. So you try to get guys in there to hold up, but it’s hard. You’ve basically got six guys that have got to play like corners covering guys that are kind of releasing down the field free.”
Virginia punted four times Saturday. North Carolina did not return any of them.
On the season, Virginia’s opponents have returned 11 punts for an averaged of eight yards, which ranks No. 69 in the country. Miami is the only ACC team that has allowed opponents to average more yards on punt returns this season.
“I think that’s something we do have to work on if we have a talented guy back there that can, if you give him a chance to catch it and return, then he can do things for us,” London said Saturday after the game. “Obviously, we have to work harder to make sure that people aren’t in his face or we do a better job of holding up and giving him a chance to return.”
Virginia’s return struggles aren’t limited to punts. The Cavaliers have averaged 16.7 yards per kickoff return this season, which is among the worst marks in the nation.
Last season, behind the efforts of fifth-year senior Raynard Horne, Virginia ranked No. 3 in the ACC in kickoff return average (21.7). But with Horne gone, the Cavaliers have turned primarily to true freshman Darius Jennings.
Jennings has averaged 17.9 yards on eight returns thus far. According to senior defensive back Dom Joseph, who is a member of the kickoff return unit, Jennings’s mark would be higher if the guys in front of him were doing their jobs more effectively.
“Kick-off return is pretty much black and white,” Joseph said Monday. “Either you get your block or you don’t. Coach [Poindexter] is doing a great job of designing plays to get us to where we need to be. It’s just a matter of us executing as a unit. That falls squarely on our shoulders, and we’re just going to have to do a better job and practice being more physical and getting our blocks.”
But, Poindexter pointed out, the returners aren’t the only ones on the punt and kick-off return units who are young and inexperienced. Several of the blockers are either true freshmen or redshirt freshman.
“When you look at some of these teams, we’ve got a lot of young guys out there doing jobs their first time in the game, and it’s hard to simulate the speed of a game in practice,” Poindexter said. “So you get in the game, and some of them get a little bit overwhelmed.”
The one thing Poindexter said he won’t do is get down on Terrell, Jennings or any of the other young members of the return units. Virginia’s average starting field position has decreased in every contest the Cavaliers have played so far this season, and Poindexter hopes that as his units gain more experience, that trend will begin to curb.
“They’ve got a lot of talent, though, so you don’t want to discourage them,” Poindexter said. “Sometimes you’ve just got to live with some of the decisions they make and just try to build off their experiences.”