When Virginia opens training camp Friday, the Cavaliers will be in search of a new primary kickoff returner. Raynard Horne, who filled that role last year, exhausted his eligibility following a 2010 season in which he ranked No. 3 in the Atlantic Coast Conference in kickoff return average (24.9 ypr).
Special teams Coach Anthony Poindexter said Wednesday he is excited about the makeup of the crop of kickoff returners from which he has to choose. According to Poindexter, the list of potential Horne replacements includes four true freshmen (Darius Jennings, Demetrius Nicholson, Clifton Richardson and Dominique Terrell) and two redshirt freshmen (Kevin Parks and Khalek Shepherd).
Poindexter also mentioned senior cornerback Chase Minnifield and junior tailback Perry Jones.
“This year I think we’ve got more depth with guys that maybe can be more dynamic back there returning the kicks and punts than we have been in years past,” Poindexter said.
Long snapper is another position at which Virginia must fill big shoes. Danny Aiken was the program’s long snapper for the past four seasons, but he’s now trying to stick in the NFL. Redshirt freshman Matt Fortin is in line to take Aiken’s place with the Cavaliers.
“I’ve been losing sleep over losing Danny Aiken,” Poindexter said. Long snapping was “part of the game you never had to worry about. Being a first-year special teams coach last year, one thing I knew was that the snap part was going to be right.”
One thing Poindexter doesn’t necessarily expect Fortin to do is make tackles after he snaps the ball on punts – something for which Aiken developed a knack. Fortin is listed as 5-foot-11 and 190 pounds, while Aiken was listed as 6-foot-4 and 255 pounds.
“It’s a bonus,” Poindexter said. “It’s another guy that you can add to the coverage, but I always equate him to just better than a cone. The long snapper, he’s better than just putting an orange cone out there. If they get in the way, push him to the right, push him to the left, push him into the coverage, that’s great. If he trips and falls, and they fall over the top of him, that’s great too.
“We don’t base our coverage on our long snapper being able to make it (down the field). As long as he can keep some kind of lane integrity and make the ball bounce one way or the other, we’ll be in good shape.”