Special teams especially concerning this week for Bearcats

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Playing on special teams sounds more like a downgrade than point of pride for a football player. Few spend formative years in their backyard imagining a critical special teams tackle or blocking a kick.

Those select few who did simulate punt return technique in the neighborhood, however, probably ended up at Virginia Tech. No coach, no program, more associates itself with special teams than the Hokies.

When referring to coach Frank Beamer's Bearmerball, that means blocked punts, kickoff returns and defensive touchdowns. In 26 years at the helm in Blacksbug, Va., his team has blocked at least one punt every season.

The last time the Hokies didn't, Bill Clinton was still the governor of Arkansas.

Virginia Tech owns the longest FBS streak of not allowing a kickoff return for a touchdown at 237 consecutive games. The next closest is TCU at 116.

Punt returner Kyshoen Jarrett already broke off a 94-yard punt return for a touchdown this season against Pitt.
Butch Jones talks regularly about special teams representing the talent level of a program. Eight consecutive 10-win seasons for Virginia Tech represents the poster child for that theory.

"They have game changers on special teams," Jones said. "You look at their punt return team with all of their wall returns. They've done it a number of years ... but I think it's the depth of their program and where they are at and the caliber of players they have involved in their special teams."

As Cincinnati prepares to take on the Hokies at 3:30 p.m. Saturday in Landover, Md., the oft-forgotten unit shuffles into the spotlight. For Jones, that means a need for dramatic improvement.

"We still have a long way to go," Jones said. "I've not been pleased with it. Again that's been a source of emphasis, which it's been every week, but especially this week."

Emphasis begins with the punt team. Thanks to his 94-yard touchdown return, Jarrett leads college football in average return yardage at 35.5 per. Even taking away his TD, he's averaging better than 20 yards on his other four returns this season.

The unique wall formation VT employs creates a challenge. RB George Winn played on every special teams unit last season, but trimmed to only punt and kickoff this season due to an increased workload in the backfield. Jones calls him the team's best special teams player.

"They do a lot of great things with their punt return team as far as their wall goes," Winn said. "I'm pretty excited for that challenge."

Jones knows to improve on his group allowing an average of 11 yards on three punt returns this season (98th in FBS), he'll need more than Winn making plays.

"We're looking for that level of consistency," he said. "We're looking for more players to step up. We need some other individuals."

Chief among them will be punter Pat O'Donnell. On the Ray Guy Award Watch list before the season, he's seen little opportunity to show off his skill due to the efficiency of the UC offense. He's punted just seven times for an average of 41.7 yards.

There will be increased pressure to not only uncork the punt quickly, but do so accurately.

"They show a lot of pressure in the fronts," O'Donnell said. "They also run a wall return which is dangerous so this week is pretty big on kick placement, keeping it toward the sideline."

O'Donnell's been pummeling the ball on kickoffs, allowing only four of his 12 kickoffs this year to be returned. Considering the four returned average nearly 25 yards (103rd in FBS), powering into the back of the end zone gains added importance.

Whether punt, field goal or kickoff, more pressure will be placed on special teams Saturday than any game this season. For a group Jones demanded more out of through two games, their response to the challenge could change the game.

It's happened before. Just check the BeamerBall archives.

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