The Irish travel to Charlottesville to face Virginia this weekend. Virginia comes into this game 0-1 on the season, losing their opener to UCLA. Here's what the Irish will see this weekend from UVA.
UVA utilizes two kickers for kickoffs and field goals, so I will start with field goals. The Cavaliers returns arguably the most experience at field goal kicker that the Irish will face all season. Senior Ian Frye, an absolutely enormous kicker (6'6'', 215), finished the season ranked #2 in the ACC and #6 in the nation with 22 field goals on the year, and #22 in the country in FG%, with a 81.5%. UVA lists Frye as #6 all-time in most points scored in a season, with a career long of 53 yards. His misses last season were from 46, 48, 50, 50, and 53. He was a two-time Groza Star of the Week as kicker last season, Specialist of the Week once last season, and was named to the Lou Groza Preseason Watch list for 2015. Yikes...move over Roberto Aguayo? Against UCLA, Frye was a perfect 3-3, with makes from 19, 31, and 42. This guy is practically automatic. If UVA manages to get the ball anywhere near the 30 yard line, it is practically automatic points.
On kickoffs against UCLA, UVA used Dylan Sims, a 6'0'', 190 pound junior. Last season, Frye was the primary kickoff man, but it appears that the UVA coach staff has bifurcated the roles here. It worked against the Bruins, as Sims has an incredible leg. Sims had 5 kickoffs against UCLA, with 3 of them going for touchbacks, 1 going out of bounds, and 1 returned. The lone return went for 16 yards and, oddly enough, was the final kickoff of the game.
As you can see from the kickoff, it was very short, but the hangtime prevented any chance of a return...along with the fumble. Still, this gives you an idea of what to expect from Virginia's kick team. ND will need smart blocking and no mistakes.
Virginia's punter is another upperclassman, Nicholas Conte, another enormous specialist (6'3'', 225), who is currently a junior. He takes over as the new starter this season but played like an established veteran against UCLA. Conte had 4 punts on the day for 202 yards, a 50.5 average, with a long of 56 and 2 placed inside the 20, with 0 touchbacks. His 50.5 average currently ranks 4th in the country. If he can sustain a 50+ yard average over the course of the season, it would rank him first in the country and likely have him holding the Ray Guy Award at the end of the season.
Punters with great legs like that suggest that long returns might be possible, as he may outkick his coverage. This happened against UCLA, as UCLA returned 3 of Conte's 4 punts for a total of 28 yards, and a long of 21, which is below.
First, UVA runs the classic spread formation with no wrinkles. This is going to be straight-up stalk blocking. As you can see from this punt, Conte definitely got all of it and absolutely outkicked his coverage by about 5+ yards. UCLA did not have the best blocking, but it was good enough (and personally, they may have gotten away with a couple clips in the process). This is proof that if you can give a decent return man a little room to work with, he can make things happen. With a punter with as strong of a leg as Conte, ND can absolutely have chances at returns--and long returns--if they block. Hopefully ND learns their lessons from Texas and can get something on a return against UVA.
UVA utilized two return men on kickoffs against UCLA, neither of which did very well. The only one returning with experience is Taquan Mizzell, a 5'10'', 195 pound junior running back. His return went for 10 yards. Last season, Mizzell had 9 returns for 208 yards, a 23.1 yard average. The other return was fielded by Albert Reid, a 5th year graduate transfer from Maryland. Reid, also a running back, returned his kickoff for 15 yards.
Here are the two returns:
As you can see from both of these, not only was the UCLA coverage very good, but the UVA blocking was practically non-existent and very, very poor. ND needs to play smart and disciplined like vs. Texas and if they do, they should be able to hold UVA to very poor field position all day.
Similar to week one, ND will face a relative unknown at punt returner, as UVA failed to return a single UCLA punt last weekend. Standing in at punt returner was Taquan Mizzell, who did not return punts last season. He is a speedy player but as long as ND plays similar to last weekend vs. Texas, I do not think they will have a problem.