UCLA-Virginia Tech Sun Bowl Preview: Winningest Coach and High Flyin' Beamer Ball

Ed Wolfstein-USA TODAY Sports

It's Saturday morning and while there is a full slate of college football bowl games on tap for today, we have to wait a few more days before our Bruins return from their hiatus to take on Frank Beamer and the Virginia Tech Hokies in the Sun Bowl in El Paso. With the Sun Bowl just on the horizon, we take a look at our opponent, beginning with an examination of Frank Beamer and the Hokies' special teams unit.

Two words: Beamer Ball.  All season long, we've been breaking down our opponent previews into three posts, lumping together the notes on the head coach and the special teams into on segment, in sort of an odd marriage, especially for coaches who aren't really special teams guys, but brought on as defensive or offensive gurus (for example, Helfrich at Oregon, Leach at Washington State, or Rodriguez at Arizona).  But if there was ever a coach where being lumped together with the special teams make sense, it's Hokies' long-time head coach Frank Beamer.

With Beamer's arrival in Blacksburg, the Hokies focus on making big plays on not only offense and defense, but special teams, to grab momentum and seize the initiative has become synonymous with the long-time Hokies' coach, coming to be known as Beamer Ball: blocking punts and kicks, setting up the big kick return, and adding points with big returns by game-changing return men.

Beamer's style is fairly well-known (which might help explain the diminishing returns he has seen on the offensive side of the ball) so Jim Mora and his staff should have the advantage of volumes of tape to study on Beamer's tendencies, but the one that everyone, even the casual college football fan knows, is that Beamer isn't scared to go for it on fourth down or pull out the odd trick play (fake punt, fake FG, etc.) and go for the throat.   But, as our friends at Gobbler Country point out, Mora does have history on his side: the Hokies have never beat any of the current Pac-12 teams and have never beat a team from California.

There's not much that can be said about the Hokies' coach that hasn't been said before, but if you haven't paid attention, the ol' ball coach has more wins in Division I-A than any other active coach, with a career record currently at 266-131-4.  In fact, of all Division I-A coaches of all time, Beamer stands at eighth in the all-time list.  But fortunately for our Bruins, despite all the success the Hokies have enjoyed under Beamer, his bowl record stands at a rather mediocre 9-11 overall, and we hope it'll soon be 9-12.  And if there is a time to take on Virginia Tech, now is the time, with the last two seasons (15-10 in that span) being decidedly mediocre by the previous high standards that the Hokies have had under Beamer.  Fortunately for Beamer, the Hokie faithful are decidedly more patient than their Texas Longhorn counterparts and there's no plans for Beamer to be given the Mack Brown treatment in Blacksburg.

And regardless of whether he wins or loses, at least Frank won't have to worry about taking the dreaded bus back to Blacksburg himself.

With that, let's turn to Beamer's special teams unit, which returns a wealth of experience from last season, with one huge exception: redshirt senior kicker Cody Journell (20-25 FGs, long of 42 in 2012; 10-16 FGs, long of 56 in 2013) was kicked off the team in November after a violation of team rules, following a collegiate career littered with disciplinary problems off the field.  In desperate need of a replacement, Beamer initially turned to redshirt junior punter Ethan Keyserling, but after three missed field goals, the job has fallen to true freshman kicker Eric Kristensen, who has acquitted himself well so far (4-5 FGs, long of 38).  But, with a long of only 38 yards, the true freshman hasn't faced true adversity yet, and if the game comes down to a long (40+ yards) FG to win or tie the game, Jim Mora has to like his chances with a true, untested freshman kicking for the Hokies.

Other than losing Journell, the Hokies return all of their main special teams components, including sophomore punter A.J. Hughes, who handled all the punting duties last season (79 punts, 40.6 yards per punt, long of 57, 22 inside the 20) and has not only been consistent for Beamer in 2013, but improved on his freshman campaign (69 punts, 44.5 yards per punt, long of 64, 19 inside the 20).

In the return game, the Hokies return both their lead punt returner and kick returner.  Fielding punts is junior defensive back Kyshoen Jarrett (18 punt returns, 13.9 yards per return, long of 94 yards, 1 TD in 2012; 26 punt returns, 5.3 yards per return, long of 43 yards, 0 TD in 2013) who provides experience but has not been the type to break the huge, game-changing returns that we've come to associate with Beamer Ball, and given Ulbrich's coverage team's excellent play so far this year, I doubt the Sun Bowl will be the time for Jarrett to get his first return TD of the year. For kick returns, the Hokies return main return man redshirt sophomore WR Demitri Knowles (21 returns, 28.3 yards per return, long of 93 yards, 1 TD in 2012; 22 returns, 21.8 yards per return, long of 88 yards, 0 TD in 2013), who has taken over kick return duties full time after splitting the workload with sophomore RB J.C. Coleman in 2012 (19 returns, 19.8 yards per return, long of 34, 0 TD in 2012).  Unlike Jarrett, Knowles does provide a big return threat and the Bruins coverage unit will need to be point to keep the shifty Bahamian from breaking a big return in the Sun Bowl, especially now that the job is exclusively his.

It's a must-win game for Mora, a chance to finish the season strong and give the Bruins an excellent launching point into the home stretch of the recruiting season.  Frank Beamer won't make it easy for Mora and his Hokies will be playing to win, so Jim will have to shake out of the conservative NFL mindset and be prepared to roll the dice and be on his toes when the Hokies special teams unit hits the field.   It's time for Mora to get over the 9-win hump and bring us a 10-win season.  Hell, if Karl Dorell could manage it, no reason that Jim can't get it done now.

GO BRUINS

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