Punt returns have been an issue for Virginia Tech this season with CJ Carroll muffing a pair of punts during the first few weeks of the season and Damon Hazelton showing promise, but also not making smart decisions on when to simply take a fair catch. Before the Hokies' bye week, CJ Carroll started to reclaim the punt return job once again, but an injury forced him to medically retire, opening up the job once again.
In Carroll's absence, the Hokies have continued to search for a consistent punt returner with Sean Savoy getting a chance against Georgia Tech and Damon Hazelton returning a punt later in the game after Savoy's muff. Justin Fuente knows the Hokies have an issue at punt returner and is continuing to look for an answer.
“Well, we keep shuffling guys back there because we’ve not been good. There’s no reason to sugarcoat it. We haven’t been comfortable with whoever has been back there has handled it. Losing CJ [Carroll] hurts us, obviously, but there’s nothing we can do about that. We need to continue to find somebody back there that can be consistent enough to field the football. That’s what we talked about at the start of the year, can we communicate to the other people on the field that are blocking for us and can we take care of the football. We’ve been fortunate up until last week that it hadn’t hurt us, and then it finally did. We will continue to move guys through that spot," Fuente said.
The Hokies' experimentation with different options has led to inconsistency with their punt returns, the one area of Virginia Tech's special teams that has been a weakness this season.
Damon Hazelton appears to be the closest thing Virginia Tech has to a normal punt returner, but the fact that Sean Savoy received the first opportunity to return punts against Georgia Tech is a sign that Hazelton is right in the middle of the competition, not the leader of it.
Part of that is likely due to some of the risky non-fair catch calls Hazelton has made, one of which resulted in a fumble at Duke that the Hokies were fortunate to recover. In addition, Hazelton has emerged as the Hokies' top offensive weapon and given the toll the increased risk for injury on punt returns, the Hokies may have a preference to not use Hazelton especially with his hesitance to call for a fair catch.
Sean Savoy's first punt return was a solid return but of course, that one was called back due to a Chamarri Conner "running into the punter" penalty, setting the stage for Savoy's muff two plays later which the sophomore WR took responsibility for earlier this week.
“I take full responsibility for it. I took my eyes off of it for a second. It’s a big part of the game; we’ve just been struggling with it lately. We just have to get better at it," Savoy said.
Though Savoy did have that big mistake, the Hokies' speedy slot receiver seems likely to continue to be a name to watch as someone who was previously mentioned with the job.
In addition, fellow slot receiver Hezekiah Grimsley has the same high-end acceleration and agility that makes him an intriguing option along with being a previously-talked about name by the coaching staff. After the early season struggles for Carroll, Grimsley was the first name mentioned as a possible option outside of Carroll and Hazelton though Grimsley is yet to receive a punt return opportunity.
One person who has appeared to fade off the radar is Bryce Watts. The sophomore cornerback seemed poised to follow Greg Stroman's footsteps in handling both roles, but his name has quietly disappeared from the punt returner competition over the past two months However, he can't be ruled out given the Hokies' struggles to date and his previous practice reps at the spot.
Virginia Tech's special teams have continued to be a strength of this team outside of the punt return spot with the Hokies still looking for a consistent answer returning punts with Damon Hazelton and Sean Savoy among the leading candidates for the job.
Photo Credit: Harley Taylor
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