When Justin Fuente came on board at Virginia Tech, he didn't waste much time in bringing along his special teams coordinator at Memphis, James Shibest, and tasking him with holding the unit to the same standard that Frank Beamer established for the program.
But through three games, special teams has been a bit of a mixed bag for the Hokies.
In particular, the punt return unit managed to contribute two muffed punts to the team's total of nine lost fumbles, and in his first chance to talk to the media on Tuesday afternoon, Shibest admitted that his group has some work left to do in the ball security department.
"The first was, there was nothing really that we could do," Shibest said. "It was actually something we pointed out was a good job. Greg (Stroman) was sitting there pointing to the ball. It was a low rugby kick and Curtis (Williams) was trying to get out of the way, it just happened. It was a bang-bang play. Sometimes that's football.
"There's been times we haven't been disciplined. I know the one at Tennessee, we did not do that, and that's when you have a bad play. We work on it once a week, to see the returner, when you're blocking your guy. Again, that goes back to guys playing and having to do that."
On the flip side of that punt return unit is the punter himself. Redshirt junior Mitchell Ludwig's stepped in for four-year starter A.J. Hughes, and after a pair of rocky outings, he rebounded a bit against Boston College with several punts downed inside the 20.
Shibest thinks his issues could merely be a lack of playing time, saying that the staff needed to "throw him in the pool (and) let him keep swimming."
"He's done a good job in the red zone," Shibest said. "Lud's gotta get better and more consistent at just punting the ball. The one thing he has done is, when he's had a bad one, he's responded and came back and didn't roll into two or three, which can happen sometimes."
As for the kicking game, junior Joey Slye has been considerably more consistent.
Coming into Saturday's contest with the Eagles, Slye was a perfect 12 for 12 in managing touchbacks on his kickoffs. Yet that streak nearly came to an ignominious end against BC, with a return touchdown called back for a penalty.
"It's like our guys were shocked they had a kick to cover, first of all," Shibest said. "They'd all been touchbacks. We told them, 'Eventually one of these boys is coming out.' We've got some guys that are inexperienced, too, some pups. (The) only way you can get experience is to go do it, you know? We had a chance to make some plays and missed a couple tackles on it also. But there were some things on that play, even though it didn't look like it was correct — how we fitted and everything — we got it to bounce to our safety. We just gotta continue to get better. I was happy they bounced back on the next one."
But while Slye's generally had an excellent year so far when it comes to kickoffs, his struggles on longer field goals have continued to dog him a bit — he's missed from 47 yards out and 52 yards out this year.
Slye — who is 46-55 from inside 50 yards — has plenty of leg on his longer attempts, but the accuracy seems to fade. While Shibest thinks it's impossible to pinpoint exactly what the issue is, he did say that he believes Slye needs to focus on the mental side of his game a bit.
"He's just got to do a better job of seeing that target. You don't need any extra leg strength; he's got plenty of that. Just hitting his line...He needs to be more consistent, also. We're counting on him.
"I always tell him, 'Don't be thinking too much. See your target. You've got the ability. Go see the target. Hit the target.' Sometimes those guys start thinking about their dang plant foot and hip."
While he was hesitant to say that any outside coaching may be problematic, he reiterated that Slye just needs to go "do it."
"Get out there and kick it, baby," Shibest said. "Just hit that line. There's uprights there; they're pretty wide. Just get them through there."
ON IF HE FOUND THINGS TO FIX ON FILM AFTER A BIG PERFORMANCE:
"Oh yeah. The double coverage throw I threw. I have more, but again, you just learn from the mistakes that you have. To get better when it comes to certain things when it comes to checking out of plays. Stuff like that. Saw a couple of times that I could have done better with — I call it the shot clock — time running down. Check out of plays better, faster. Stuff like that, I can improve on. Complete better throws I throw. I can always get better at those. So yeah, just things during the game or after the game, watching the film and seeing things like that that you can always get better on."
ON WHAT HIS DAD TALKED TO HIM ABOUT AFTER THE GAME:
"He talks to me more about other things right now. It's kind of weird. He tells me more about certain things that again, I don't wanna talk about. But it's not more football right now. He understands I'm getting — I'm my hardest critic, he understands that — he understands that I'm getting a lot from Coach Fuente. He doesn't want to keep putting more on that and he puts more stuff on me with other stuff that I don't want to talk about."
ON IF THEY ARE MORE PSYCHOLOGICAL THINGS:
"A little bit of that. Little bit of things, again, I don't wanna talk about. It's definitely personal. How to be when things start to arise. How to handle good and bad."
ON HOW CONFIDENT THE TEAM IS COMING OFF OF A BIG WIN:
"To be honest, I don't know. I really don't. I know that we just got a new playbook, so to speak, for this game against ECU, which has a lot of talent. I think these guys, Tuesdays and Wednesdays (we) really grind, so you can't really figure out the emotional energy of the team. Just know that they (are) trying to get the chart done and get at a high place or it's gonna be a long day with Coach Fuente. I think the guys (are) just trying to do their job trying to understand the new stuff we just put in, the new install, and making sure we do that. It's kind of hard to really tell the energy and confidence. Honestly, you're confident after a 49-0 win. That's logical, but I don't know to what extent. I think I'll find out more Thursday, Friday and then, of course, the game we'll find out more. I think the guys are very confident. I don't think the guys have ever really had 49 points from what some of the guys have told me before, so that's a booster."
ON THE REGULARITY OF NEW WEEKLY INSTALLS:
"Oh yeah, every week. Every week we go into the gameplan differently because different teams throw different things at you. Boston College doesn't run the same defense as an ECU. ECU doesn't run the same defense as Tennessee. Every week is a different wrench in things. New install, same concept and everything, just new install, different ways of running stuff to make sure we can put up points."
ON IF FUENTE GIVES OUT MUCH PRAISE:
"He has his moments, but those moments (are) far in between. But when you get them, it's not (anything) major, it's very subtle. Like one time, I threw a good pass, came off the sideline most of the time the quarterback (coach) or offensive coordinator or head coach might, you know, give you a high five, slap you in the head or what not. He just gives me a (low five) and that meant I did a good job. It means a lot, 'cause he doesn't give you that much praise. And that's a good thing because he always wants to keep us grinding because you know, week to week, you know how good you are and then next week how bad you are. He's an even-keeled kind of guy. He makes sure that we understand that we have business we have to take care of. We have goals that we need to accomplish. And he won't let us waiver from what we need to accomplish. I love it. My father doesn't give me that much credit — he might talk behind my back about how good I am — but he won't tell me to my face. He won't tell me how good I've done as a son, so that's how I feel with Coach Fuente."
ON ECU'S DEFENSE:
"They move all around the place. I mean all around the place. They're very talented, don't mistake that. There's just a lot of things they throw at you. Their ends stand up, they move around, they twist their linebackers, they play man free, they play cover three, they play a lot. Just gotta see it. I mean I play defense that plays the same things when it comes to exotic things. Just gotta see it and make the right decision."
ON MOVING FROM BEING SURPRISED BY A GOOD PERFORMANCE TO EXPECTING IT:
"Doing it. Actually do it. Once you do it a couple times, like anything, once you rep something so many times, it becomes the norm. Obviously it's one game, we still have to work on stuff that we're not doing good. But I think once we start getting comfortable as a team, knowing that we can do that on a week in, week out basis, that we'll start getting comfortable in our stuff and our philosophy and go on from there."
ON IF ISAIAH FORD IMPRESSED HIM RIGHT AWAY:
"Not right away because he was hurt. I didn't get to practice with him, so not right away. He impressed me when he finally got to practice in fall camp when we had two-a-days and all that. He makes some remarkable catches with somebody holding him, which would have been a flag in a game, he catches with one hand. He'll go across the middle, I mean do some stuff that you go, 'Woah...ok.' I heard a lot of things, but once you actually see it, you go, 'Ok.'"
ON IF THE TEAM WATCHES ALL OF THE PLAYS EACH WEEK:
"No. We don't watch every play as a team. We watch special teams as a team, we watch those things, but not so much all of that."
ON THE TEAM BEING MORE EXCITED WHEN PUNTS GET PINNED INSIDE THE 20:
"I get exactly what he means. I don't think people understand how significant that is to a game and how much that turns the game around. I don't know how many times we pinned them down there. I know we were on our side of the (field) for a minute, which is a great thing. Having to be on your side of the (field) and not to have to worry about being on your 20 trying to push 80 yards every single time. I think he wants to stress the point of, to do that, that's a great thing to do and we should all be happy and excited just like if you caught a double coverage pass or a DB picks the ball or if they get a strip-fumble or whatever it may be, get excited just like that when we pin them inside the 10 or 20 or whatever it may be."
ON THE MISSED BLOCK THAT LED TO TRAVON MCMILLIAN GETTING HIT:
"As a teammate, you understand what the guy is trying to block for you and is coached to do. In that situation, the guy from Boston College just made a great play. I talked to Travon after and he understood. We're cool."
ON HOW YOU FEEL IN A SITUATION LIKE THAT:
"You know it's your fault. The play is over with, just gotta move on and finish the game."
ON SITTING OUT AFTER THE FIRST SERIES:
"The coaches, you know, saw what they saw. We watched the film and kind of, I kind of understood, and the coaches did what they thought was best for the team at that time. They did it, and then we ended up winning 49-0. That's all that matters."
ON IF THEY GAVE HIM REASONS WHY HE WAS BENCHED:
"I mean, it doesn't really matter. They did what they thought was best for the team and we won."
ON IF HE'S SURPRISED HE CAME OFF:
"I'm pretty, well I am, very, very hard on myself. I usually sense when I think I'm doing well or when I think I need to pick it up. I'm usually good at that. The coaches saw something, made that substitution, and they rolled on as the game went on. That's how it went."
ON IF HE THINKS THE PERIMETER BLOCKING HAS IMPROVED:
"I think a big thing with that is just knowing where you're supposed to go and what you're supposed to do. In practice, even in film, the coaches do a great job of trying to drill it in our head (about) different looks, what the defense can throw at us. We go through countless repetitions so on gameday, we can play fast and not hesitate and know who we're supposed to block."
ON IF HE'S SURPRISED WITH THE OFFENSIVE PERFORMANCE:
"I'm not surprised by anything we do. We have a lot of weapons. The coaches know how to use them. When we're rolling, we put up 49 points and the other offense scores zero points. I think we're capable of that day-in and day-out."
ON IF THE TEAM IS KEEPING THEIR EMOTIONS IN CHECK THIS WEEK:
"I think the coaches do a good job of telling us to move on. We can't replay that game. We can't keep talking about it. If we stay on that game, then that'll be just one win and we lose the rest of them. It's kind of pointless. We understood that we played well, even though we did leave some points out there. It was enough to get a win and the coaches went back to the film and didn't praise us, I mean they did praise us, but to help us stay even-keeled, told us there is some stuff that we need to fix. I think that's great and is gonna help us moving forward."
ON WHAT HE SEES ON ECU WHEN HE WATCHES FILM:
"I played those guys twice now and it didn't end how I wanted it to. We're gonna be pretty confident in our work ethic going around this time. I think we'll be happy with the result."
ON IF REVENGE PLAYS A FACTOR TO HIM:
"It does. I definitely want to beat them. But then again, I want to beat everyone. I wanna win every game, so I don't treat this one any more or less important. I think it's one we should win, and I wanna win."
ON IF HE'S IMPRESSED WITH WHAT HE SEES FORD DO:
"That stuff doesn't surprise me. His work ethic is amazing. He's confident because of the work that he puts in. That stuff is, I expect that from him."