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Virginia Tech's Special Teams Move on from Beamerball

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Reinventing Frank Beamer's pride and joy.

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When Frank Beamer eventually does retire, there’s little doubt that he’ll look upon the 90s and early 2000s as his heyday. It was during that roughly 15 year period that his ‘pride and joy’ unit - special teams - grew to become among his most defining contributions to Virginia Tech. So prolific and reliable were the blocks, punts and returns that the system took on his name: Beamerball. Where most teams resorted to blocked punts or other such difficult plays only when desperate, Beamer made it a cornerstone of Tech’s success. And it paid dividends. The 66 blocked kicks the team racked up during the 90s - more than any other college team - were a core component of years leading up to the 1999 National Championship appearance. Such numbers also made visiting Blacksburg something of a pilgrimage for such illustrious programs as Ohio State and Notre Dame. They came to learn at the feet of the Beamerball’s namesake, to wring out what points they could from football’s most overlooked phase of play.

It’s not a terrible stretch to compare Beamerball with baseball’s modern Moneyball revolution. Though economics and payroll obviously played no part in Beamer’s system, it shares with Moneyball a core concept: that we often overlook ways in which the game could be better played. For decades the game was split between offense and defense, the special team unit seen almost exclusively as a transition between the two. This is by no means a ridiculous assumption. ESPN’s Team Efficiency metric measures the overall points to be expected from the efforts of each phase of play per game. Offenses and defenses are predictably much more vital, but that’s not the point. Like Moneyball, Beamerball was always about thinning already thin margins. Billy Beane did it by prioritizing things like on base percentage, Beamer did it by forcing turnovers against punting units. The top special teams unit in the NCAA by the Efficiency metric in 2014, Memphis, directly or indirectly contributed 4.92 points per game. In a sport where the margin of victory averages just over seven points per game, an efficient special teams unit can have serious benefits.

The flashier parts of Beamerball - the blocked punt returned for a touchdown, for instance - always outshined its grittier and arguably more important aspects. It’s stating the obvious, but a reliably deep and accurate punt sets the stage for nullifying the opposition’s drive and perhaps force a turnover in a dangerous area, particularly when it’s Bud Foster’s devastating defense waiting on the sidelines. Efficient field goal units combined with the ritz of kick blocking and the grind of the deep punt to help create Beamer’s legacy in Blacksburg.

Unfortunately, such success was always going to have a short lifespan. No innovation goes unpunished. Teams adapted to deal with Beamerball. Nowadays opposition punting units regularly field three blockers ahead of a punter who begins his run from deep. The same old techniques no longer work. Beamer’s adapted his style, trying to have his players come in one handed and just off target to avoid collisions with the punter. This wasn’t a problem tinkering would easily fix though. The game evolved and a slew of new recruits that failed to live up to the standards of years’ past sent the unit into decline. It began in the mid-00s and appears to have bottomed out from 2011-13. Football Outsiders produced a similar metric to ESPN’s above called the Fremeau Efficiency Index that takes into consideration the combined points produced by every element of the special teams. Virginia Tech’s top ranking in 2010 was followed by rankings of 68, 62 and 75 in the following three years. Something had gone terrible wrong.

Beamer understood this by the summer of 2012. He explained to the Washington Post that the three-man shield ahead of kicking units made it difficult to find those old Beamerball rhythms. So difficult, in fact, that he acknowledged that more stood to be gained from concentrating on punt returns rather than punt blocks. He told the Post, "I just think the way the game’s going, you’re going to end up getting more returns than blocked kicks, just the way the punt formation has come around." Superiority in blocked kicks had led to overspecialization at the expense of the other elements of the special teams unit. Beamer began to seek balance, and results, however incremental, followed.

By the Special Teams Efficiency rating on the FEI mentioned above, Virginia Tech jumped thirty three spots from 75th place to 42nd in 2014. Contrary to Beamer’s stated goal, the bulk of that improvement did not come from increased punt return efficiency. Rather, it came from dramatic improvements in kickoff efficiency and opposition field goal prevention. The former actually began in 2013. SB Nation’s own Football Study Hall created it’s own metric to gauge what it means to have a ‘successful’ kickoff. It measures the distance of the kick itself less the amount gained by the opposition’s return. Tech ranked 20th in 2013 by that measurement. Hokie fans would be forgiven for failing to find hope in increased kickoff efficiency, especially while the offense continues to stumble. Nevertheless, the improvement could be the sign of things to come.

With Tech’s 2014 punter AJ Hughes sidelined due to a recent back surgery, junior Mitchell Ludwig will be tasked with punting duties for spring training ahead of the 2015 season. His kickoffs were a key component in the improvements of last year and there’s a real chance he competes with Hughes for the starting spot. In either case, Beamer will no doubt be expecting his punting to catchup with the team’s improvement in kickoffs.  A deep roster of players for the coverage unit should also hopefully contribute to even greater improvements in both punting and kickoffs in the coming year. Returning the ball continued to be an issue in 2014, but it’s hoped a healthy competition among J.C. Coleman, Greg Stroman and Deon Newsome could spur on results.

A retooled special teams is due to come out of the wilderness, if not this year than certainly soon. It will be different, and no doubt less potent than the highs of the 90s, but able to compete with some of the best in the country once again. It could end up being that Beamer’s legacy will be defined as much by Beamerball as his recovery from its backlash.