Sunday, September 25, 2011

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Hokies' special teams performance worrisome

HUNTINGTON, W.Va. — Two big questions remain after four Virginia Tech games. They aren't the spiciest questions. They aren't the ones you'll see posed on the national broadcasts right before kickoff.

But they are important nonetheless, and they get to the heart of what this program's all about.

1. Can the Hokies make a field goal when they have to?

2. Can the Hokies boom a punt when it matters?

You might have other questions. That's reasonable. The Hokies are 4-0, and they haven't played a complete game since their opener. They've had fumbles. They've had penalties. They've had chances to blast teams by the end of the third quarter and have instead just won, mostly unimpressively, like in their 30-10 victory over Marshall on Saturday.

But here's the thing: These guys know the same thing you do. Their first four games should have been wins. That makes a big difference in intensity, focus, adrenaline, all those things. You can be certain that the players rushing out of the tunnel next Saturday night against Clemson will have a much different state of mind than they've had at any point during their drive down Tune-up Boulevard.

Place-kicking and punting, though? Those are almost done in a vacuum. You snap, you hold, you boot. You catch the ball, you drop it, you put your foot to it. With the exception of the rush, which rarely is a factor, it doesn't matter whose jerseys are on the other side. The results are largely opponent-neutral.

And that's why it's worrisome that two of Tech's biggest question marks coming into this season remain unanswered.

Cody Journell has a big-league leg. Distance is not a problem. But after going 1-for-2 on field goals against Marshall, the Giles High School alum is now 4-for-7 on his attempts. Two of his misses have been from inside the 40. The one he missed Saturday was from 37.

"I might have missed that one by half a foot maybe," Journell said. "It was basically just alignment. I know everything I'm doing, so I'm confident in myself to be able to come in and do it in a big game.

"It was left. It started out in the middle, and I thought it was good. And it kind of knuckled outside a little bit. But it happens. You've got to just shake it off."

Tech coach Frank Beamer seemed most concerned with the extra point that got blocked in the first quarter, adding: "We've just got to continue to work."

Journell, who connected from 41 yards out in the second quarter, has the same challenge many of his teammates do: He needs to find a way to repeat his good performances more often.

"Basically my problem right now is just pinpointing it down, staying in the middle every time, being consistent," he said. "But we do really good work during the week and everything. I hate that I've come out here and missed by a foot or two the past couple games. But as the season goes on, I think we'll get everything down pat."

Tech's punting average coming into this game was 34.6 yards. And after four punts Saturday — two by starter Scott Demler and two by receiver Danny Coale — that's still the average. The Hokies haven't finished a season with an average under 40 since 2003. That was also the last time they didn't win at least 10 games.

The correlation isn't as direct as that, of course, but punting matters a lot in Blacksburg. It's part of the formula. And that's why Coale got his shot after Demler's first two punts averaged 38 on Saturday.

"He knows how to operate with the pressure on," Beamer said of Coale. "We're going to kick him there for a while, probably."

It was Coale's first punt since high school — and it traveled 25 yards.

He struck his second one better but saw it bounce into the end zone 37 yards away. He knows that neither result was close to ideal.

"There's definitely pressure, because we've had some great punters here in the past," Coale said. "I'm not getting in there and doing it just to do it. I want to get in there and be good at it, do well at it, like anything else."

So does Journell. Whether they will? Well, we're a month into this thing, and we can't say we know.

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