Ranking the ACC units: Special teams
Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich
Special teams are critical, especially in Blacksburg, and it's one of the Hokies' few weaknesses this year. They're in need of a kicker for the third time in three seasons, but Virginia Tech is hardly the only team in the ACC with big holes to fill. Here's how the ACC's special teams units ranked:
1. Miami -- Matt Bosher has already gotten plenty of ink in the blogosphere, but he's only one reason the Canes are No. 1 here. Bosher converted 18 of 20 field goal attempts and averaged 40.3 yards per punt. It's possible Jake Wieclaw could give Bosher some relief on kickoffs. If Travis Benjamin stays healthy, the return game will be in great shape. Benjamin led the team and the ACC in punt return yardage (173) and was ninth in the ACC in kick return yardage (477). Thearon Collier is also another return threat.
2. NC State -- The combination of kicker Josh Czajkowski and speedy return specialist T.J. Graham make the Wolfpack one of the best in the ACC. If they find a punter this summer, the unit will be complete. In his first season as starter, Czajkowski made 84.2 percent of his field goals (16 of 19), and he made 33 of 34 PATs to finish with 81 points and seventh place in the ACC in scoring. Graham's 1,028 yards in kickoff returns set the school record for a single season and already ranks fifth on the Wolfpack career list. They have to replace punter Bradley Pierson, though. Jeff Ruiz and Carl Ojala are both options.
3. Maryland -- The Terps have to replace kicker Obi Egekeze, but they've still got the ACC's top punter in Travis Baltz. He pinned Maryland opponents inside their own 20-yard line 24 times last year. Wide receiver Torrey Smith had a record-setting season as a kickoff returner, as he set the ACC single-season record for kickoff return yards with 1,089. There are high expectations for Nick Ferrara, who will be a true freshman, to replace Egekeze, but the job is wide open.
4. Virginia Tech -- Not only did the Hokies lose placekicker Dustin Keys, but they also lost punt returner Victor "Macho" Harris. The good news is that punter Brent Bowden returns, as does kickoff man Justin Myer, and snapper Collin Carroll. Matt Waldron and Myer enter summer camp as the favorites for the placekicking and kickoff duties, respectively. Incoming freshman Cody Journell might give them both a run for their money, though. Ryan Williams came out of spring practice as the starting punt returner, but Dyrell Roberts and Danny Coale are also options.
5. Clemson -- The Tigers have to replace veteran starters Mark Buchholz and Jimmy Manners at the two kicking positions. Spencer Benton, a redshirt freshman, is the frontrunner to take over the placekicking duties, but he'll get some competition from Richard Jackson. Dawson Zimmerman, who started two games and punted in three last year, should be the starting punter. Zimmerman averaged 38.5 yards for his 12 punts last season. The return game is in good hands -- C.J. Spiller's. Jacoby Ford is also experienced as a return man, and has a punt return and a kickoff return of more than 90 yards for scores.
6. Georgia Tech -- This is the area where coach Paul Johnson wants to see the most improvement, and with good reason: The Yellow Jackets ranked 11th in the ACC in net punting, 10th in kickoff returns and ninth in punt returns last year. Junior Scott Blair did a respectable job last year, as he was the first Yellow Jacket to handle both kicking and punting duties in 25 years. He'll get some competition, though, at one or both positions from sophomore Chandler Anderson, the holder last season. Anderson, who missed spring practice after a bout with appendicitis, punted six times in '08 for an average of 41.7.
7. Boston College -- Steve Aponavicius returns for his senior year. He went 14-for-21 on field goals last season. Newcomer Nate Freese, who kicked a school-record 52-yard field goal in Ohio, will challenge Aponavicius. Ryan Quigley and Billy Flutie both return to their punting duties. Quigley serves as the main punter and averaged 39.6 yards per kick with nine pinned inside the 20-yard-line. Flutie was used in short situations and pinned opponents inside the 20 seven times. Unheralded veteran long-snapper Jack Geiser also returns.
8. Duke -- The Blue Devils return placekicker Nick Maggio and punter Kevin Jones. Jones punted 71 times last fall and 27 of those kicks pinned Duke's opponents inside their own 20-yard line, the most by any punter. He finished second in the ACC in punting, with 40.8 yards per kick as a sophomore. Maggio made 11 of 14 field goal attempts.
9. North Carolina -- This might be the Tar Heels' biggest concern, as they have to replace punter Terrence Brown, and placekicker Jay Wooten decided to transfer. Connor Barth was UNC's primary field goal kicker in 2008 and Wooten was used as the kickoff man. Reid Phillips is a walk-on who is now in the mix, and walk-on Grant Shallock, who handled the punting duties this spring, is another option. The staff is eager for the arrival of prized recruit C.J. Feagles. Another concern is the return game, which survived without Brandon Tate last year with the help of walk-on Trase Jones. He finished the season with five returns for 36 yards.
10. Florida State -- The Noles took a huge hit here with the graduation of Lou Groza Award winner Graham Gano. The good news? FSU returns its long-snapper, Zack Aronson, and holder, Shawn Powell. James Esco and Nathan O'Jibway handled the kicking duties this spring, but neither have attempted a field goal in a game during their careers. There are high hopes for freshman Dustin Hopkins. Powell, who started the first seven games of 2008 as punter, will replace Gano there.
11. Wake Forest -- Veteran Sam Swank only started seven games last year before being injured, and that allowed Shane Popham to get his feet wet. Popham said he's much more confident heading into this season and gained valuable experience last year. He could handle both duties a
gain like he did last year. Popham made 7 of 12 field goal attempts and averaged 39.2 yards on 54 punts, pinning opponents inside the 20 on 19 occasions.
12. Virginia -- After three season as head coach at Kansas State, Ron Prince returns to Charlottesville to coach special teams, and it won't be an easy gig. Senior Yannick Reyering's injury-marred career is over, so sophomore Chris Hinkebein, who handled the kickoff duties for five games while Reyering was slowed with an injury, is expected to contend for some of the placekicking responsibilities. Robert Randolph shared some time with Reyering last year and made 3 of 4 attempts. Junior Danny Aiken is a proven long-snapper, and sophomore Jimmy Howell was one of five true freshmen to see time last year. He averaged 39.0 yards on 64 punts.