With fall practice starting today, we finish up our Virginia Tech position-by-position preview with Joey Slye and the special teams.
Throughout the Frank Beamer era, the Hokies were known for their defense and special teams with Beamer Ball becoming nationally recognized and bringing the Hokies to a previously unseen level of national prominence. Despite the coaching change, Justin Fuente has put an emphasis on special teams including the hiring of James Shibest as special teams coordinator.
The Hokies’ special teams unit is headlined by junior kicker and former walk-on Joey Slye who earned his scholarship early on as a freshman and has brought stability to the kicker spot. Slye has only missed 2 extra points in 76 tries in his first season while also having a 74.1% field goal percentage including going 17-for-22 from 40-49 yards. Slye has proven that he has tremendous leg power but his long-range accuracy still has room to grow as he has missed all 7 career attempts from 50 or more yards.
Slye has a cannon for a leg that has made him very good at getting lots of touchbacks while also having the build of a linebacker that allows him to actually be somewhat useful if the Hokies need him to tackle a return man. Slye has given the Hokies a reliable kicker on and off the field that has the potential to be an All-ACC First Team kicker this year or next especially with Robert Aguayo now in the NFL.
There is change at punter this year with A.J. Hughes gone and many expecting a battle for the punter job before Brandon Nickle flipped from Virginia Tech to Tennessee. Now, Mitchell Ludwig is expected to be the punter and many are wondering if Ludwig will be able to do as well as Hughes did.
Ludwig started out as a kicker before making the transition to punter while also being used some on kickoffs before Slye took over that job full time. Ludwig has a good leg and showed some potential upside this spring but Ludwig still has a lot of room to grow to become one of the ACC’s top punters.
One benefit for Hokie fans is the fact that James Shibest coached 2013 Ray Guy Award winner Tom Hornsey at Memphis and clearly knows how to coach up punters. The potential is there for Ludwig but it will be up to him to step up or a surprise name could possibly take his job.
The man that will be doing the snapping for the Hokies is Colton Taylor who was deservingly given a scholarship ahead of his redshirt junior season with the Hokies. The Salem, Virginia native proved that he was capable of taking over at the spot this spring and in the five games he appeared in last season. The Hokies will look to Taylor to be a reliable long snapper and avoid having any turnovers or bad snaps in critical situations.
Greg Stroman struggled for much of 2015 with his punt returns as he made multiple bad decisions to run back a punt that would cost him yards instead of waving for a fair catch. However, Stroman broke through in the Independence Bowl with a few big returns including a 67-yard touchdown return that was his first punt he returned for a touchdown in his career.
Stroman will be pushed by some people likely including Henri Murphy and C.J. Carroll but Stroman should be the top punt returner again and his slump-busting performance against Tulsa is a good sign for what could be to come this season. If Stroman struggles again, he may not be able to keep the job for the whole season but if he can build off that momentum, Stroman will be in for a breakthrough year.
The Hokies haven’t had stability with their kick returner but one man who seems like a clear frontrunner to be returning kicks is newcomer Henri Murphy. Murphy was going to have to sit out but a couple things have changed that will allow Murphy to play this fall and Hokie fans should be excited to get this athlete on the field.
Murphy has the combination of speed and agility to be a dangerous return man while also having shown the smarts at the JUCO level to find the open lanes and take advantage of mistakes for opposing special teams units. Murphy seems like a clear cut top choice to be returning kicks for the Hokies this fall now that he is eligible and could be the difference in a game or two this season.
Der’Woun Greene had the most success of kick returners last season with a couple of solid returns and while he isn’t the fastest on the team, Greene has the smarts to make some plays. Deshawn McClease is a lot like J.C. Coleman and McClease could be a serious contender to earn a kick return spot while C.J. Carroll could also potentially be a factor here.
Well there you have it, our position-by-position preview to open fall practice is complete but there is more to come in the next few weeks.
Check out the home of our 2016 Virginia Tech Football Preview right here.