Inside the Numbers: Special Teams Dominance
by Will Stewart, TechSideline.com
TSL Extra, Issue #12

"Special Teams U."

You hear it all the time: Virginia Tech has the best special teams in the country; Frank Beamer coaches the special teams himself; the Hokies blocked more kicks in the 90's than any other college team; Tech has blocked 83 kicks in 14 seasons under Beamer; etc., etc.

After a while, it all starts to run together, and the gaudy stats start to lose their meaning. You know Tech's good at special teams play. They block kicks, they run kicks back, they blow games open with special teams Ö they do it all.

Where else in the country do the fans make so much noise every time the punt block team comes out? Where else in the country do the fans smile and nod every time their kicker boots another kickoff out of the end zone? Where else in the country was the new punter a quasi-legend before he even stepped on the field for his first game?

Where else in the country do the special teams have their own nickname, "Pride and Joy," because they're the head coach's ... pride and joy?

Nowhere but Virginia Tech. Other schools pay lip service to special teams, but at Tech, the Hokies walk the walk.

By now, you've grown used to it, and perhaps you even take it for granted. If you're like most Hokie fans, you think Virginia Tech could block every single punt if they really wanted to, and you can't understand why they donít try to. And then Andre Davis returns another one for a touchdown, and you turn to your Tech buddy in the middle of your celebration and say, " Ö What were we talking about?"

So you know Tech's special teams are good, very good. But how good? 83 blocks is a lot, but how good is it? In other words, how do Tech's stats compare to their opponents' stats?

Ah, that's the key question, isn't it? Because if you run a 9.85 in the hundred, it doesn't matter if the other 7 guys in the race can all run 9.75's. You're going to come in last.

That brings us to the point of this latest edition of "Inside the Numbers." We're not just going to take a look at how good the Hokies are at special teams. We're going to find out how much better they are than their opponents, and that will help us quantify the extent of Virginia Tech's special teams dominance.

The Data

There are many, many aspects to special teams performance: return yardage, punting average, net punting average, touchbacks, field goal percentage, etc. But what sets the Hokies apart in special teams are two things: blocked kicks and scoring. Tech blocks more kicks than most teams in the country, and the Hokies score off of those blocks and off of kick returns.

We're going to take a look at four sets of data for the Hokies and their opponents: blocks, touchdowns off of blocks, punt returns for TD's, and kickoff returns for TD's. When we're done, you'll be able to tell your friends exactly how many blocks and points per game Tech's special teams dominance is worth.

Note that the data presented here include bowl games, not just regular season data. The data do not include numbers for the 2001 season, just 1987-2000. Along the way, we're going to take a quick look at the numbers since 1998, because since then, the Hokies have really cranked up the heat.

Blocked Kicks

The blocked kick is the signature play of Frank Beamer's special teams, in particular the punt block. While other teams go for games on end without pressuring kickers, Beamer believes in using the special teams like a weapon to turn the game around.

Frank Beamer does what very few coaches do: he alternates pressure with setting up for the return, to the point where opposing teams can neither protect at maximum efficiency nor prepare properly for the return. In recent years, the Hokies have been able to pinball back and forth between blocking kicks and returning them for touchdowns, doing both with more effectiveness than most other teams in college football.

Here are the kick block figures for Beamer's tenure at Tech. The numbers include punt, field goal, and extra point blocks.

Blocked Kicks (all kinds), 1987-2000

Season

VT

Opp.

1987

3

0

1988

7

4

1989

2

3

1990

6

3

1991

6

0

1992

6

2

1993

6

1

1994

4

0

1995

8

5

1996

6

2

1997

7

5

1998

12

2

1999

2

2

2000

8

1

Total

83

30

1987-1997

61

25

Since 1998

22

5

The Hokies have "outblocked" their opponents by a ratio of 2.77 to 1 during Beamer's time at Tech. But note that in his first 11 seasons, the ratio was only 2.44 to 1. In the last three seasons alone, the ratio has been 4.4 to 1, and that includes a middling 1 to 1 ratio in 1999.

The Hokies have never been shut out in blocked kicks in a given year and have only been outblocked in one season (1989). By contrast, they have given up 0 blocked kicks in a season three times and have only given up 1 in two other seasons.

Blocked Kicks for Touchdowns

A blocked kick for a touchdown is a disheartening play for the opposition, and it is often a back breaker. Some examples: The Hokies used an early blocked kick for a TD to silence the East Carolina crowd in 2000, and in the 1993 Independence Bowl, Antonio Banks returned a blocked field goal 80 yards for a touchdown to blow open a close game right before half time.

On the negative side of the ledger, in 1997 Miami of Ohio used a blocked punt for a TD (among other special teams plays) to help defeat the Hokies 24-17 in Lane Stadium. And no Tech fan will ever forget Florida State blocking a punt for a touchdown in the 1999 Sugar Bowl against Tech.

Out of all the blocked kicks listed in the previous section, how many have been returned for touchdowns, both by Tech and their opponents?

Blocked Kicks Returned for TD's (1987-2000)

Season

VT

Opp.

1987

1

0

1988

2

1

1989

0

0

1990

0

0

1991

1

0

1992

0

0

1993

2

0

1994

1

0

1995

1

0

1996

1

1

1997

0

2

1998

3

0

1999

1

1

2000

1

0

Total

14

5

1987-1997

9

4

Since 1998

5

1

To sum it up, during Beamer's tenure, Tech has outscored the opposition 84-30 on blocked kicks. That point ratio is almost identical to the 83-30 block ratio. The Hokies have returned 14 out of 83 blocked kicks for TD's -- that's 16.8%. Their opponents have returned 5 out of 30 -- that's 16.7%.

And as you can see, since 1998, the blocked kick for a TD has almost disappeared from the opposition's arsenal. The only exception is the FSU block for a touchdown in the Sugar Bowl (the absolute worst time to give up the only TD in the last three years).

Punt Returns for TD's

When you look at the punt returns for TD's statistics over Beamer's time at Tech, what Andre Davis accomplished last year is truly amazing. Take a look.

(One note: for those of you with VT media guides from seasons past, the statistical summaries that show punt returns for TD's include blocked punts that were turned into TD's. So Ricky Hall, for example, is credited with two "punt return" TD's in 1998, but they both came when he covered blocked punts in the end zone. I have removed blocked punts for TD's from the statistics shown here, and I show "true" punt returns for TD's.)

Punt Returns for Touchdowns, 1987-2000

Season

VT

Opp.

1987

0

0

1988

0

1

1989

0

0

1990

0

0

1991

0

0

1992

0

0

1993

0

0

1994

1

0

1995

1

0

1996

0

0

1997

0

0

1998

0

0

1999

1

1

2000

3

0

Total

6

2

1987-1997

2

1

Since 1998

4

1

In Beamer's first 13 years, Tech had just three punt returns for touchdowns. There were so few of them that I can remember every one without looking them up: Antonio Freeman against Pittsburgh in 1994, Bryan Still against Texas (Sugar Bowl) in 1995, and Ricky Hall against Miami in 1999. Of course, it helps that two of those three were very memorable plays, and for some reason, I have the Freeman return stored away in my mind, as well.

In 2000, Beamer's 14th season, Davis returned three punts for TD's, tying the number of punt return TD's from the previous thirteen years. Remarkable.

That gives the Hokies 6 punt return TD's in Beamer's tenure, and Davis has already turned in another one this year, against Central Florida, tying him with the great Frank Loria for career punt returns for TD's, with 4.

Since 1987, Tech's opponents, on the other hand, have returned just 2 punts for TD's. One came in 1988, and the other didn't happen for 11 years -- that's right, Peter Warrick for FSU in the Sugar Bowl. Once again, a terrible time to let it happen.

But you can see that the sight of a Virginia Tech punt returner taking the ball to the end zone, which we have become accustomed to in the last two seasons, really wasn't a common sight before Andre Davis arrived -- and it might not be after he leaves.

Kickoff Returns for Touchdowns

For all his special teams prowess, Frank Beamer is oddly unaggressive when it comes to kickoff returns. In his first 14 seasons with Tech, the Hokies returned just three kickoffs for touchdowns, and it's interesting to note that since the Hokies started winning in 1993, they have returned zero kickoffs for touchdowns.

Kickoff Returns for TD's, 1987-2000

Season

VT

Opp.

1987

1

1

1988

0

1

1989

1

0

1990

0

0

1991

0

1

1992

1

0

1993

0

1

1994

0

0

1995

0

0

1996

0

0

1997

0

0

1998

0

0

1999

0

0

2000

0

0

Total

3

4

1987-1997

3

4

Since 1998

0

0

The main reason why the Hokies donít return many kickoffs for touchdowns is that Beamer rarely puts his fastest player back to return kickoffs. Instead, he puts players who are "actively involved" in the game back to return kickoffs -- mainly running backs. The idea is that he wants to use players who are used to contact and won't fumble the ball when hit.

This is uncharacteristically conservative of Beamer (on special teams, anyway), and it has resulted in him rarely if ever putting his fastest players back to return kickoffs. Therefore, when they break free, they usually don't have the speed to outrun the kickoff team and score.

Since 1987, the Hokies have been led in kickoff returns by running backs Jon Jeffries (87, 88, and 91), Tony Kennedy (92), Dwayne Thomas (93, 95), Shyrone Stith (98, 99), and Andre Kendrick (2000); wide receivers Marcus Mickel (89, 90), Bryan Still (94), and Shawn Scales (96); and defensive back Ike Charlton (97).

With the exception of Still, the players listed were not known for their speed. Scales and Charlton were the only kick returners other than Still who might have scored if they broke containment.

The kickoff return stats are where Beamer's teams do not outshine their opponents. In fact, Beamer's Hokie teams have been outscored 4-3 on kickoff returns. Tech usually holds the advantage yardage-wise, but in terms of breaking free for scores, the Hokies don't dominate their opponents here. You might say it's the last frontier for Coach Beamer on special teams.

The Bottom Line

You can sum up all these stats thus:

1.) Beamer's football teams have out-blocked their opponents 83-30 in his first 14 seasons. Tech blocks about one kick every other game. Their opponents block a kick roughly every five games.

2.) In 162 games over 14 seasons, the Hokies outscored their opponents on special teams 23 touchdowns to 9, or 138 points to 54 (not including the extra points that get kicked after those touchdowns).

Beamer's Virginia Tech special teams aren't perfect. In 1997, Miami of Ohio scored two special teams TD's to grab a 24-17 upset win at Lane Stadium, and Florida State's 14-0 advantage on special teams in the 1999 Sugar Bowl game was a major factor in keeping the Hokies from a prized national championship win.

But the Hokies have turned the tide in a positive way in many other games by bludgeoning their opponents with their special teams. Even now, with special teams being a trendy area for teams to improve their performance, the Hokies stand out as one of the best.

 

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