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Military Bowl Position Preview: Special Teams

Could this be a battle of the punters?

NCAA Football: Virginia Tech at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The Cincinnati Bearcats are going to a bowl game! Unfortunately, they won’t be playing until Dec. 31. That means we’ve got to do something to pass the time. Over the next few weeks leading up to the Military Bowl between the Bearcats and Virginia Tech Hokies, we’ll be breaking down the matchup position by position. While special teams isn’t a single position, today we’ll be looking at all the specialists as one unit.

Virginia Tech

I will level with you. I am not an expert on Virginia Tech football. However, for as long as I can remember, I’ve known that the Hokies were very good on special teams. Much of that had to do with the incredible work of Frank Beamer, who coached them for a thousand years (give or take) before stepping down at the end of 2015. Since Beamer left and was replaced by Justin Fuente, special teams have remained a priority, but with diminishing results. In 2015, the Hokies ranked 24th in the country in special teams S&P+. They fell to 48th in 2016, rose to 31st in 2017 and are back to 45th this year. However, that is their highest mark in all three of the S&P+ metrics.

The standout player on the unit very well may be punter Oscar Bradburn, a third-team All-Atlantic Coast Conference selection this season. The sophomore averaged 42.2 yards per punt, launching seven kicks more than 50 yards and dropping 23 inside the opponent’s 20-yard line. While the Hokies punt coverage isn’t the best (10.8 yards per return), Bradburn isn’t the issue. As for their own punt return work, talented wide receiver Damon Hazelton Jr. has handled them the most, but with a modest 5.4 yard per return average.

Kick returns are a whole different matter, with four different Hokies returning at least seven this season, but none with more than Terius Wheatley’s 10. As a whole, they average 21.9 yards per return, with Wheatley the most prolific (24.9 yards per return), but that’s largely inflated by a 51-yard kickoff return against William & Mary.

The kicking game is solid enough, with Brian Johnson drilling all 40 extra points he has attempted and 11-of-16 field goals. Just don’t expect him to be making especially long tries, as he has gone 3-for-8 on kicks of 40 or more yards. Meanwhile, Jordan Stout is the primary option on kickoffs.

Cincinnati Bearcats

We may be staring at one of the premiere punting matchups of the season right now. UC will counter Virginia Tech’s Bradburn with its own all-league punter in James Smith. The sophomore was named to the All-American Athletic Conference first-team for the second-straight season and he can boot it with the best of them. He averaged the fourth-most yards per punt in the country this season (47.02), with 16 kicks of more than 50 yards, including a long of 72 yards. With Smith setting them up for success, the Bearcats are the the top punt coverage team in the AAC, allowing only 5.2 yards per return.

Unfortunately, the rest of the Bearcats’ special teams efforts have been forgettable at best. They allow a little less than 23 yards per kickoff return and although James Wiggins is an electric playmaker on defense, he hasn’t captured that magic when returning kicks (20.9 yards per return). Punt returns are even less potent as despite reliable hands, Aulden Knight has only averaged 5.1 yards per return as the primary option.

Then there’s the kicking game, which was exposed most heavily in UC’s loss to UCF. While the Bearcats eventually lost by a wide margin (38-13), they had a great deal of momentum and a chance to an extend an early lead in the first quarter, but two missed field goals from Cole Smith (one of which was blocked) crushed any chance and allowed UCF to get back in the game. Smith also struggled mightily in UC’s other loss this season, missing three of four field goal tries in an overtime loss to Temple. Still a freshman, Smith has plenty of time to improve, but this year has not been a great start.

Who has the edge?

Smith is the clear favorite in the battle of the punters, but the Hokies have the upper hand overall. They are better in coverage and have a more consistent kicking game, not to mention UC’s ranking in special teams S&P+ (76th). They may not be as good as they once were, but the Hokies have the superior special teams unit in this matchup.

Advantage: Virginia Tech