CHARLOTTESVILLE — For Ricky Brumfield, it’s really not a question.
If he were an opposing coach, would he kick the ball to Virginia’s explosive returner, Joe Reed?
“I would not,” Brumfield, U.Va.’s special teams coordinator, said this week. “I would not. I think the chances of him taking one back to the house is too severe for me to want to kick to him. The more times he has the ball in his hands, the more chances he has to score.”
A year ago, Reed led the ACC, averaging 29.7 yards per kick return. He took two back for touchdowns, tying North Carolina’s Anthony Ratliff for the most in the league. Through two games this season, the Cavs (1-1) have seen two approaches to Reed. In the opener, Richmond kicked away from him. Reed didn’t get a chance to return a kick.
“I don’t really know until the game,” Reed said. “We watch film from their previous games and get a read on what they like to do. I get excited when it’s coming to me. But when it doesn’t, we’re already at the 25-yard line.”
The Spiders sent two kicks short. They were returned by freshman wide receiver Tavares Kelly and sophomore running back P.K. Kier, two up backs. A third kickoff went out of bounds.
Virginia’s field position was just fine. It started eight of its 12 drives at the 30-yard line or better. Its average starting field position was the 35 against UR.
“I think Indiana saw that and decided to take their chances kicking it deep,” Brumfield said.
This past weekend, in the loss at Indiana, Reed did get his chances. He returned all four of the Hoosiers’ kickoffs in the game.
Reed took the opening kickoff at the 4-yard line and returned it 25 yards to the 29. He fumbled the second one he handled, setting up Indiana’s second touchdown of the game.
“We weren’t sure they would kick it to Joe, but doesn’t seem like they’re afraid to right now,” U.Va. coach Bronco Mendenhall said.
Virginia isn’t likely to take advantage of the new NCAA rule that allows teams to fair-catch kickoffs and get the ball at the 25. The aim of the rule was to cut back on the number of kick returns, since that play is considered to be one that produces some of the most violent collisions and potential for concussions.
Around the nation, few teams put the new rule to use in the opening two weeks. ACC coaches, including Duke’s David Cutcliffe and Wake Forest’s Dave Clawson, noted one reason why.
Under the new rule, if a returner signals for a fair catch and then drops the ball, the receiving team’s possession starts where the ball hit the turf.
“There’s also the risk with the fair catch that if you call for the fair catch and don’t catch it clean, you’re stuck with the ball at the 1- or 2-yard line,” Clawson said. “You’ve got to get really good at practicing those fair catches because the penalty for not handling the fair catch is severe.”
Ohio coach Frank Solich said his team is aware of Reed’s abilities, including his 92-yard touchdown return against Georgia Tech last year and his 98-yard run back for a score to open the Military Bowl.
“It makes you not want to kick to him,” Solich said. “[It’s a] real challenge to [defend] a guy like that. We’re just needing to try to keep [our focus] on a player like that. You never want to let him break containment. … You’re hoping you can kind of surround him a little bit at times and get a lot of players to be involved in the tackle. One on one isn’t necessarily going to get it done.”
Should the Bobcats kick away from Reed, Virginia has a plan. Brumfield said having other players back, including wide receivers Kelly, Olamide Zaccheaus and Billy Kemp (Highland Springs) and running back Kier, can allow the Cavs to get good field position and big returns even if the ball doesn’t get to Reed.
In its opener against Howard, Ohio kicked off six times and had three returned — for an average of 8 yards — and three go for touchbacks.
What does U.Va. expect?
“Honestly, you never know until the ball’s in the air,” Brumfield said. “As a special teams coach, you have to prepare for everything and see what you get. I don’t know what to expect.”