Despite being often overlooked, special teams is just as significant to the success of Virginia Tech football as offense and defense.
Effective or ineffective execution on special teams can make or break a game or, quite often, a season.
Sophomore punter AJ Hughes understands this reality and has been nothing short of brilliant over the season’s first half. The Indiana native has been the picture of consistency throughout the duration of his short career.
Coming off of a freshman season in which he averaged a very respectable 40.6 yards per punt, Hughes has raised the bar even higher in 2013—averaging 45.3 yards per opportunity. The enhancement in his punting proficiency is a result of a long offseason of work.
“I had a really good offseason, working on my fundamentals and my timing is a lot better,” Hughes said. “I have a lot of confidence in our unit.”
Mental development has been just as important to the punter as physical development. The gains Hughes has made mentally between his first and second seasons of college football have made him better suited to handle pressure situations.
“I don’t feel any pressure, probably the opposite actually,” Hughes said. “Knowing we have the best defense in the country makes me excited about trying to pin the other team deep.”
His body of work in this regard has been good enough to earn him the 11th best punting average in the nation.
“Field position is everything and the quickest way to get it is in your punting game,” said head coach Frank Beamer. “When you’re trading punts, it adds up and [Hughes] has been really good for us.”
Also to be noted is the improvement of Hughes’ special teams counterpart, place kicker Cody Journell.
After Journell earned a spot as a Sports Illustrated honorable mention All-American last season, the redshirt senior was expected to compete for national honors, such as the Lou Groza award given to the nation’s best kicker.
This wasn't to be, however, as Journell began the season by missing three of his first six field goal attempts—two of which were inside forty yards—and two extra points.
After one of the worst performances of Journell’s career, in which he missed two field goals and an extra point in the East Carolina victory, he was benched for the following game against Marshall for undisclosed reasons.
In Journell’s return against Georgia Tech, he missed a chip shot from 25 yards out.
Despite ranking 92nd out of 100 qualifying place kickers in the nation for field goal percentage—63.6 percent—the improvement in Journell’s game is notable.
After not attempting a field goal against UNC, Journell knocked through four of five field goal attempts against Pittsburgh as well as converting on his only extra point opportunity.