It was a stark contrast to the touchback-heavy run of Tech great Harrison Butker. In the four seasons when Butker handled kicking duties – 2013-2016 – Jackets opponents had four kickoff returns of 40 yards or more, two fewer than Tech permitted this season alone.
The problems almost mirrored each other. The kickoff return team had trouble keeping coverage players blocked and the returners couldn’t make the first tackler miss. The coverage team got blocked, and players who were able to get free took bad angles or missed tackles.
It was at its worst against Virginia, when the Cavaliers’ Joe Reed took back the opening kickoff 57 yards to set up a field goal and then returned a second-quarter kickoff 92 yards to the end zone, two big plays in Virginia’s 40-36 win. Meanwhile, on a day when the Tech offense was not in top form, the best field position that the kick-return team could provide on eight kickoffs was the Tech 31-yard line.
Tech did do well in one area of the kicking game with punter Pressley Harvin, who was 18th nationally with a 44.1 yards-per-punt average. Tech ranked 31st nationally in net punting at 39.74 yards per punt. And, while his range wasn’t extensive, kicker Brenton King made five of six field-goal tries after replacing the injured Shawn Davis.
One positive is that Tech never lost the ball on a fumble on a kickoff or punt return (not counting the desperation kickoff return on the final play of the Miami game). It was perhaps the primary reason why Johnson stuck with Brad Stewart on punt returns. While his longest return in 16 returns was 21 yards, he was a surehanded player who could be counted on to keep possession for the offense. Johnson said other players who might have been more dynamic in the return game auditioned in practice, but they kept fumbling.
Tech also only blocked one kick – a Virginia punt – after averaging 4.5 blocks in the previous four seasons.
For the past two seasons, A-backs coach Lamar Owens has coordinated special teams, with one assistant assigned to each unit. Johnson did not fail to mention his frustration with the kicking game on several occasions during the season.
Between 2012 and 2015, Johnson broke with his longstanding approach and used a coach specifically for special teams, and the Jackets were in the top 52 in kickoff return average three of the four seasons. In the six seasons in which the special-teams units have been split up among the staff, Tech has been in the 96th or lower four times.
Johnson would have the opportunity to add a coach dedicated to special teams when NCAA rules permit the addition of a 10th coach to the staff starting in January. He has generally been against it, noting that special-teams play typically mirrors the quality of the specialists.
Tech’s best years in kickoff return in Johnson’s tenure occurred when the staff had a special-teams coach and Jamal Golden was the returner. Whether Golden made the return team what it was or coaching made Golden the returner he was is open to debate.
Clearly, though, something needs to be done. Outside of Harvin’s field-flipping ability, special teams rarely provided a difference-making edge for a team that often needs every advantage it can acquire. Whether it’s committing more starters to special teams, using simpler schemes or finding a different way to practice them, new solutions will be needed, as the Jackets’ methods this season did not work.