Hokies Have A Way Of Getting Kicks

When a football team is playing Virginia Tech, it's "hold your breath" time in every kicking situation. The Hokies have made special teams explosions a trademark.

Alabama didn't have much luck in special teams the last time the Crimson Tide faced Virginia Tech and its head coach, Frank Beamer. The Hokies call it "Beamer Ball," and it worked against Bama in the Music City Bowl in Nashville at the end of the 1998 season. Virginia Tech blocked two Alabama punts in rolling to a 38-7 win over the Tide. It is the only time in 11 meetings Virginia Tech has beaten Bama.

The Hokies blocked two punts and two field goals last year.

Alabama and Virginia Tech open the 2009 season on Saturday at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. It is appropriate considering the emphasis on special teams that it is the Kickoff game, as named and sponsored by Chick-fil-A. It is the top game in the nation on opening weekend, likely to be one of the top match-ups of the season. Alabama is ranked fifth in the nation, Virginia Tech seventh. Kickoff will be at 8 p.m. EDT (7 p.m. central time) with national television coverage by ABC.

Alabama has key returning personnel in the kicking game. Leigh Tiffin is the pre-season All-Southeastern Conference place-kicker. Javier Arenas is a pre-season All-America as a return man. The Tide also has deep snapper Brian Selman, who has never had a bad snap, back for his third year.

Probably the Bama player under most pressure considering Virginia Tech's reputation is punter P.J. Fitzgerald.

Fitzgerald is beginning his fourth year as Bama's punter. He has gotten better each year. As a freshman he averaged 38.2 yards per punt. He improved that to 38.7 yards per punt as a sophomore in 2007, but that was the year he had a punt blocked (by Ole Miss). Last year he had two punts tipped, but averaged 41.1 yards per punt.

He had his worst game last year against Auburn, averaging only 34.4 yards, but it was not significant in the 36-0 Alabama romp.

Fitzgerald, who was a high school quarterback as well as punter, says that he has gained muscle (he's up to about 205) and thinks he will be a stronger punter this season.

Alabama Coach Nick Saban is a great believer in the importance of special teams. Although Bama has a special teams coordinator in Bobby Williams, Saban said the kicking game is a "staff responsibility." He and all assistant coaches other than the offensive and defensive coordinators are involved in various aspects of special teams.

Saban said, "We have a pretty good group of guys back on the punt protection team. And it's gonna be important that we do a good job. I think we're improved from last year. I'm pleased with where we are. We're very aware that the team we're going to open with has been a team that likes to put pressure on specialists, had a history that they've been able to block punts and it's going to be important that we do a great job in protection. I think that comes down to fundamentals, execution, footwork, good stance and start what you're doing and being disciplined and how to do it. But we have a pretty experienced group of guys and a punter that has made improvement each year. P.J.'s made improvement each year."

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