Special teams return to center stage around the ACC

Special teams play is thriving again in the ACC and it could not have come at a better time.

One season after the league managed just five kickoff and punt returns for touchdowns, there have been seven already this season - and another near miss. That's good news in a league where quarterbacks are getting hurt seemingly every week; points that come from special teams and defense are more appreciated than ever.

No surprise, explosive players put the ''special'' in special teams.

Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said coverage teams need to recognize they are a constant threat.

''People, I think, have changed their mentality a little bit and see it more as opportunity for an explosive play, even if the ball's in the end zone,'' Swinney said. ''And at times, kickoff coverage teams, they've got to have the mentality that the ball is coming out every single time. They can't sit there and wait and say, `OK, it's in the end zone. They're going to down it.' No, that's not going to happen.''

Swinney knows that all too well.

His Tigers gave up a 100-yard kickoff return against Louisville, allowing the Cardinals to close to within 20-17.

''We're fortunate that it didn't cost us the ball game and we were able to overcome that,'' Swinney said.

Virginia special teams coach Larry Lewis believes the new kickoff rule that went into effect last year also has something to do with it this season's turnaround. Last year was the first year that touchbacks brought the ball out to the 25 yard-line, and some teams were happy to take that. Now teams seem to be letting their playmakers try to do something more.

''It was a new change for everybody. Everybody was adjusting their return and their distance, `When do we take it out?' and that kind of stuff,'' Lewis said. The Cavaliers were second in the conference in kickoff returns last season, averaging 25.3 yards, and this season had their first punt return for a touchdown in the last 11 seasons.

The key, coaches say, is knowing personnel and teaching them to make good decisions.

''Beamer Ball'' played a role in Virginia Tech's rise in prominence two decades ago. The Hokies continue to focus on special teams with assistant coach Shane Beamer and his father, head coach Frank Beamer, both working with the units.

Shane Beamer was speaking to a local sports club a few weeks ago when he said a woman asked why the Hokies insist on bringing the ball out on kickoffs, even when they catch it several yards deep in the end zone.

Then last week, the Hokies Der'Woun Greene caught a kickoff on the goal line and returned it 82 yards.

''I thought of her on Saturday,'' Beamer said, adding the Hokies don't mind a playmaker catching the ball in the end zone and returning it. But they want him to catch it running forward.

Frank Beamer was one of the first coaches, if not the first, to use some of his best players on special teams instead of using them as a platform to give freshmen a chance to play.

It's an approach that makes perfect sense to Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher.

''Everybody says it's a risk,'' Fisher said. ''Deion Sanders was one of the best punt returners in the history of the game. Terrell Buckley, one of the best returners in the history of the game. When you put your best returners with the ball - (Tamarick) Vanover was a receiver, right? You get open space and get a chance to put your best players with the ball in their hand, you're going to do it. ... I think it's stupid if you don't.''

Ryan Switzer at North Carolina may be the best in the ACC at the moment.

Two years after he tied an NCAA single-season record with five punt return touchdowns, Switzer had a 71-yard return last week against Illinois, and later added an 85-yarder for a touchdown in a 48-14 victory.

Opponents have largely been kicking away from Switzer.

''The first two games we got one opportunity to get a real return - one,'' said Tar Heels coach Larry Fedora. ''That was directional kicking, that was some hang-time issues. ... The (Illinois) guy, he kicked him the ball. And there was not a lot of hang time. So he put a lot of pressure on his coverage unit.''

And it doesn't look like Switzer and his ACC special teams brethren are going to ease up anytime soon.

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AP sports writers Pete Iacobelli in Clemson, Aaron Beard in Chapel Hill and Joseph Reedy in Tallahassee contributed to this report.

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