BLACKSBURG, Va. — Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster was highly upset about the Hokies’ special teams at halftime of Saturday’s 35-10 loss to top-ranked Alabama, delivering a tongue-lashing that has proven to be something of an inspiration to his players.
In the days after the loss, Virginia Tech’s defensive standouts have approached Coach Frank Beamer in the hallways of the team’s headquarters. Senior defensive ends James Gayle and J.R. Collins, senior cornerback Kyle Fuller and linebacker Tariq Edwards all said they wanted to be included on special teams coverage going forward.
This, Edwards figured, was the only recourse after the Hokies gave up both a kickoff return and a punt return for a touchdown in the first half against Alabama, ending any chance at an upset. He didn’t want to be part of the demise of “Beamer Ball,” the aggressive style of special teams play utilized by Virginia Tech for more than a decade.
“It’ll never be dead, not just off of one game,” Edwards said Tuesday during Virginia Tech’s weekly news conference. “You can always come out and work on your mistakes, look at film, see who didn’t perform and what went wrong and fix that the next week.”
That is exactly how the Hokies are spending the lead-up to Saturday’s game against FCS Western Carolina. Most of Sunday’s practice involved special teams work, and though Beamer wouldn’t reveal exactly which veterans would be on his coverage units going forward, significant personnel changes are on the way.
The legendary status of Virginia Tech’s special teams was due in part to Beamer’s willingness to use starters on that unit in the past. But he believes there were too many young players on the field Saturday — the result of an offseason in which an unusual amount of injuries and attrition sapped the Hokies’ depth — as Virginia Tech’s coaches entered the Alabama game hoping to give their key players a chance to rest during special teams plays.
“I think when you have youth in special teams play, it can get you because all special teams, it’s in wide-open spaces and they’re big, big momentum plays. Whichever way it goes, it’s a momentum play,” Beamer said. “It just takes good people, and experienced people sometimes, to play those special teams. We tried to get some younger guys in some cases a chance to do that, but they just need a little more time.”
Against Alabama, coverage miscues cost Virginia Tech dearly.
On the first punt of the game, sophomore cornerback Donovan Riley and freshman defensive back Chuck Clark over-pursued Alabama punt returner Christion Jones in their roles as gunners on the play, and long snapper Eddie D’Antuono, tight end Darius Redman and linebacker Josh Trimble were among several players who had poor lane fits.
Trimble, a special teams standout a year ago who Beamer noted was playing a new role on the punt coverage team, then missed a tackle that helped spring Jones on his 72-yard return. Beamer acknowledged after Saturday’s game that linebacker Ronny Vandyke and tight end Ryan Malleck, both of whom were lost to season-ending shoulder injuries during the preseason, had been in spots on the side Jones used for his return.
Trimble was also one of three players, along with running back Daniel Dyer and fullback Sam Rogers, who were unable to wrap up Jones on his 94-yard kickoff return at the end of the second quarter. Several Hokies coming from the back side of the play thought Jones was tackled and stopped running.
The struggles on special teams are symptomatic of a roster that is relying on a lot of youth. Virginia Tech used nine true freshmen in Saturday’s game after playing eight true freshmen in 2012 and seven in 2011. The two years prior to that, the Hokies only played five combined freshmen.
Beamer acknowledged Monday that the program has “missed on some people recruiting-wise” the past few years and perhaps misjudged other prospects who ended up not being talented enough to play at Virginia Tech.
But the “Beamer Ball” mystique has been fading for some time now. The Hokies haven’t blocked a punt against a FBS team or scored a defensive touchdown since 2010. Beamer, though, remains adamant about his once-vaunted special teams, hopeful some new personnel will give his maligned unit a boost.
“It’s just those plays can be such explosive plays. I’ve always said you make good plays on special teams, it’s the quickest way to win a football game,” Beamer said. “And if you don’t make good plays, it’s the quickest way to lose a football game. We need to get our best people out there.”