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The Bearcats Big Edge Is Special Teams

The Virginia Tech program was built into what it is with defense and a then uncommon emphasis on special teams. The defense is tough, and will challenge the Bearcats in different ways. But the Virginia Tech special teams are not as special as they once were.

David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

According to Football Outsiders special teams rankings this Virginia Tech team has settled into a kind of comfortable mediocrity over the last for years on special teams. They have ranked between 60th and 80th in each of the last for seasons after finishing 1st in special teams efficiency in 2010.

They haven't had one season as bad as the Bearcats was last year when they lost three games on special teams, including the bowl game. It was never that bad for the Hokies this year, it was just never particularly good either. They have individual pieces that I like among their special teamers, Demetri Knowles and Keyshon Jarrett are respectable kick and punt returners. I think Joe Slye had a good season for a freshman kicker, but he did not have a good season if that makes sense.

For the Hokies the sum of the parts has been disappointing. Knowles is really on the Ralph David Abernathy IV growth plan. Come out like a beast as a freshman, and then have steadily diminishing returns as your career moves on. Jarrett is probably the Hokies best returner, kickoff or punt, but he has only handled six kicks this year. While Slye had a fine year for a newb, he still converted just over two thirds of his kicks. That's a slight improvement on Cody Jounell's slump filled senior numbers.

Two things hurt the Hokies with their special teams, they don't get points when they can because Slye was up and down for most of the year. The other is that they don't control field position with their kicking game like they used to. The kickoff game is pretty good, but they aren't good at flipping the field with the punt.

The Bearcats big advantage when it comes to special teams is in the punt department. Shaq Washington is to the punt return team exactly what he is to the offense, as steady pair of hands attached to a guy who makes very good judgement calls. Shaq hasn't been flawless catching punts, but he has been better at it than anyone since Mardy Gilyard.

Sam Geraci struggled early in the year, he was even benched at one point, but he has been particularly good. Over the last five games he has been averaging 41.6 yards per punt and he has allowed just 3.6 yards per return for the season. He is not yet in possession of Kevin Huber weapon status, but it's not absurd to say that he can get there.

The Bearcats other advantage is Andrew Gantz. Gantz is the single biggest reason behind the Bearcats impressive special teams turnaround this year. He has been rock solid from the start for the Bearcats. His ability to convert with such regularity changes the complexion of games, because of the way that it extends the Bearcats scoring range. That allows UC to be more aggressive with the pass as they approach the red zone. For a team with the Bearcats weapons that is a huge gift. The lack of that assurance has been a big issue for the Hokies this year, and it has almost certainly contributed to their struggles.