Special teams huge in Hokies' 2-0 start

By Jimmy Robertson

BLACKSBURG – Virginia Tech head coach Justin Fuente arrived at Monday’s news conference in a good mood, and for good reason, as the Hokies moved to 2-0 with a shutout of Delaware on Saturday. They also moved up two spots in both national polls and now sit at No. 16.

Tech began preparations for East Carolina, a team coming off two tough losses to James Madison and West Virginia to open the season, on Sunday. Fuente cautioned against reading anything into ECU’s defeats.

“I can tell you they’ve played two really, really quality opponents,” he said. “I know there are not a lot of people running to their athletic directors asking for James Madison to get on the schedule. I can promise you that. That’s a fine football team, and West Virginia kind of got on them early, so we know how good West Virginia is. We’re looking forward to the challenge.”

Much of the Hokies’ early-season success can be attributed to their dominance on special teams in the first two games. Tech has gotten great punting from freshman Oscar Bradburn, a punt return for a touchdown from Greg Stroman, and 12 touchbacks from Joey Slye.

In fact, Tech’s first two opponents combined for just two return yards – on punts.

“When I look at our football squad, I think we have to do all the little things correctly to give ourselves a chance to win,” Fuente said. “Part of that’s because of our youth, [and] part of it’s because of the people we’re going to play. We’re going to play quality people that have other good players as well.

“For a long time, that’s [good special teams play] been a formula for winning football. I think we’re going to play in close football games week in and week out, and doing the little things in all three phases… but special teams is the one time you’re dealing with large chunks of yardage … I think it’s paramount to have a chance to win or have success. We’re going to have to give ourselves every opportunity.”

Tech assistant coach James Shibest coordinates the special teams in addition to coaching the tight ends. He wants to continue seeing improvement, and in particular from Slye on field-goal attempts.

The senior from Stafford, Virginia is just 3 of 7 on his attempts this season and 1 of 5 from beyond 30 yards. He hit a career-long 50-yarder Saturday, but Delaware blocked a 46-yard attempt.

“We’re going to be in a lot of close games this year, and Joey’s going to have to execute his job more consistently,” Shibest said. “That’ll play out as the season goes.

“Joey’s an analyzer, and I tell him that it bothers me a little bit. I said this last year, ‘Get your line, and go hit the line.’ Sometimes you can out-think yourself out of what you’re doing. But the biggest thing about that position is confidence. Really, there wasn’t much on tape, and he would tell you the same thing. It’s not that he’s not hitting the ball or shanking it or anything like that. We’re just not hitting the ball on line. We’re going to need him to do that.”

Tech figures to face a little stiffer test on special teams this Saturday. Chris Love averages 21 yards per kick return, and punter Austin Barnes averages 44.1 yards per punt for the Pirates.

Tech figures to face a tough test anyway despite ECU’s record. The Hokies lost on their last trip to Greenville, and this young squad is playing its first true road game of the season.

“We will talk about that,” Fuente said “We’ve already started talking about it. It’s just a little bit more of a personal endeavor to go on the road and go into somebody’s stadium on their campus and have the discipline and the intensity that it takes to go win a ball game on the road anywhere.”

Here are some other nuggets from Monday’s news conference:

• Both Fuente and Shibest raved about the punting Bradburn, who came to Tech from Australia and is averaging better than 46 yards per punt. He has placed five of his 13 punts inside the 20, but more importantly, he gets great hang time on his punts, which allows the coverage unit to get down the field and surround the returner.

“Been very happy,” Shibest said. “You could tell he was tensed up in that opener, but it’s kind of cool. That’s the most fun he’s had in a long time. Getting over that nervousness and executing is pretty cool for him.

“He’s been a weapon for us. We’re controlling the field position in these games and helping our defense and getting the ball up pretty good, too. He’s still young, man, just thinking down the road when he gets bigger and stronger and all that. He’s got a chance to improve in time.”

• Shibest also likes what he has been seeing from his tight ends – a trio of Dalton Keene, Chris Cunningham and Colt Pettit. They have combined for just one catch (a 39-yarder by Cunningham), but have done a nice job of blocking. Right now, Shibest rotates Keene and Cunningham.

“It keeps them a little fresher, and someone may emerge a little bit more who’s being a little more productive and executing his job,” he said. “I think they’re off to a pretty decent start. Dalton is a freshman, and Chris hasn’t played a ton. For the amount of experience they have, they’ve been pretty solid. They still make a few mistakes, but I’ve been happy with them. They’ve been playing pretty hard.”

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