Matching Virginia Tech Special Teams Play Remains Difficult Task

West Virginia returner Winston Wrigth (1) speeds ahead of the field for a touchdown on the opening kickoff

MORGNTOWN, W.Va. — Former Virginia Tech football coach Frank Beamer didn’t invent special teams play. It only seems that way.

The man who really put Hokie football on the map is retired now, but his legacy carries on through fifth-year coach Justin Fuente, who has kept special teams play a major emphasis in his program, setting up Saturday’s noon game at Mountaineer Field between West Virginia and its Black Diamond Trophy rival a game that well may swing on special teams play.

WVU’s kickoff return unit has been lifted into the national consciousness by Winston Wright, who has returned kickoffs 90 or more yards in each of the first two games, one a 90-yard TD return and the other a 98-yardern that saw him bring the ball from his end zone to the Maryland 2.

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While the Mountaineers have blocked extraordinarily well on kickoff returns over the last couple of seasons under Neal Brown, the rest of their special team play has not reached such an exceptional level and Brown knows that it has to get better this week, because Virginia Tech continues to put the special into special teams.

The Hokies lead the ACC with a 19.7-yard punt return average this season through two victories over North Carolina and Middle Tennessee with wide receiver Tayvion Robinson’s 59-yard punt return the longest thus far in the conference. Punting has been solid for the Hokies, ranking second in the ACC at 43.4 yards per punt, and giving them a wide edge over WVU’s net punting average of 34.6 yards per punt.

“Their specialists are very good,” Neal Brown admitted. “They have been very good on kickoff returns through two games.”

They have allowed only one kickoff to be returned for 18 yards, which will offer a challenge to Wright, who averages 52.9 yards per return. Tech also returns kickoffs well averaging 36 yards per kickoff return.

Tech not only runs kickoffs back, but they return punts well and they have an additional edge.

“They have a history of blocking punts,” Brown noted. “They do a great job of what I call direct angle.”

It goes back, of course, to what came to be known as “Beamerball” in Blacksburg and the numbers under the former coach are staggering.

Under Beamer, Virginia Tech blocked 138 punts and scored an equally amazing 55 special-teams touchdowns — 20 on punt returns, 20 on blocked punts, nine on kickoff returns, four on blocked field goas, one on a fumbled kick recovery and another on a fumbled kick return.

In fact, one of the biggest plays of the Beamer era, just as he was getting established came on a punt return against Texas in the 1995 Sugar Bowl.

The Hokies trailed,, 10-0 in the second quarter when Bryan Still brought a punt back 60 yards for a touchdown to ignite a 28-10 victory over the Longhorns.

“That game got our program to a different level,” Beamer recalled a few years back “It was a major bowl, a major opponent and we beat them. The reason we beat them was because we had good special teams play.”

The good special teams play was there from the start. Tech’s first bowl experience, against Indiana in the 1993 Independence Bowl, turned on a special teams play. They trailed 20-13 with one second left in the half when the Hoosiers lined up for a 51-yard field goal.

All the Hokies did was block it, get Antonio Banks to scoop it up and return it 80 yards for a touchdown, setting the team on fire.

Final score: Virginia Tech 45, Indiana 20.

Beamer was never shy about telling the world how important he believes special teams were to his success.

“Special teams are the quickest way to win a football game,” Beamer said while making a speech in Dallas four years ago. “We had so many games over the years turn on a punt return or a blocked field goal.

Fuente has carried on the tradition through special teams coordinator James Shibest. SportSource Analytics ranked Tech’s special teams units No 5 in the nation over the past four years behind Appalachian State, Kansas State, Stanford and Memphis State.

Make no doubt, Neal Brown has turned up the heat on special teams play this week and Winston Wright is taking it as a personal challenge.

“He’s been a difference-maker for us,” Brown admitted. “The thing he’s done in the kickoff return game is that he has not stopped his feet. If you look at the great returners, they never stop their feet and he hasn’t stopped his. Every move he’s made has been forward.”

Will Virginia Tech accept the challenge and kick to Wright or will they decide to try and avoid walking through the quicksand that awaits in the woods?