As he moved his way up the coaching ladder over the past decade, Shane Beamer would inevitably get the same question about his father’s football program whenever he sat down for a job interview: “What makes Virginia Tech so good at special teams?”
In recent years, college coaches have made annual pilgrimages to Blacksburg in hopes of discovering the secret. Former Ohio State coach Jim Tressel and former Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis each brought their entire coaching staffs to campus, and NFL special teams coordinators also have visited.
“They saw what an impact it made on games and now everybody in the country sees that and because of that, you hate to say they caught up with us, but everybody has put added importance on it,” said Shane Beamer, who coached at Georgia Tech, Tennessee, Mississippi State and South Carolina before returning to Virginia Tech last offseason as associate head coach. “There’s no bigger momentum-changer than to score a touchdown on special teams and I know teams saw that and emulated it.”
But as Coach Frank Beamer embarks on his 26th season at Virginia Tech, he has had to face a new reality. The program that inspired the nickname “Beamer Ball” because of its penchant for scoring touchdowns via special teams and defense hasn’t been all that good at it of late.
Shane Beamer, who was a long snapper for Virginia Tech when it made a run to the BCS title game at the end of the 1999 season, said the pressure of living up to the Beamer Ball name isn’t the issue. But there is no doubt the Hokies have been in a steady special teams decline.
During the 1990s, no team in the country blocked more kicks than Virginia Tech, which had 66 in the decade. Since 2003, however, that figure has been cut in half to 30 blocked kicks, including only one in two of the past three seasons.
Last year, meanwhile, the Hokies scored only one touchdown through a blocked punt or turnover, their lowest total since 1990. The Hokies also finished 2011 ranked 108th in the country in net punting average and 94th in kickoff returns.
Frank Beamer said part of the problem for his punt-block unit — he calls it “Pride and Joy” to emphasize the significance it holds within the program — is that punt protection has become more sophisticated, with teams frequently employing a three-man shield that makes blocking kicks more difficult.
“I just think the way the game’s going, you’re going to end up getting more returns than blocked kicks, just the way the punt formation has come around,” Beamer said last month.
Even in that regard, though, Virginia Tech saw its performance slip a year ago, averaging more than two yards fewer per punt return.
The Hokies’ most glaring special teams weakness, however, has been with punts. Beamer never could settle on one punter a year ago, and by the end of the season he turned to wide receiver Danny Coale. A botched fake punt by Coale nearly derailed Virginia Tech in its Sugar Bowl loss to Michigan, giving the Wolverines the ball in Hokies territory with the score tied late in the fourth quarter.
In training camp, the past two All-Met place kickers — freshman Hunter Windmuller (Flint Hill) and sophomore Michael Branthover (DeMatha) — as well as freshman A.J. Hughes are battling to be the team’s punter. Beamer is never far away during their daily kicking competitions, often standing just behind the action to add pressure.
“I don’t have the biggest leg, but I’m a consistent punter,” Hughes said recently. “That’s what Coach Beamer says he’s looking for.”
Coaching special teams is a staff effort at Virginia Tech, and play-caller Mike O’Cain is the lone assistant not involved with one of the Hokies’ special teams units. Offensive coordinator Bryan Stinespring learned this offseason that strategy won’t be changing any time soon.
A few months ago, he approached Beamer about potentially decreasing his role as part of the “Pride and Joy” team in hopes of focusing more on his offensive duties. If Stinespring had any doubts about how important Beamer Ball remains at Virginia Tech, he got his answer then.
“He looked at me and said, ‘Big boy, I’m looking at it this way: You want to spend less time on the pride team, make sure we don’t punt,’ ” Stinespring said with a laugh.