For Massachusetts, special teams are an anomaly, proving to be its biggest asset at times and at others, its Achilles heel.
UMass benefited from its special teams play in a win at James Madison last week while it costed them in a loss to Richmond on Oct. 16.
Kicker/punter Caleb Violette earned Colonial Athletic Association Special Teams Player of the Week honors for his performance in his home state against the Dukes, kicking two field goals (33, 25) while having two punts of more than 50 yards.
“Violette’s done a great job all year,” UMass coach Kevin Morris said. “His punting at the beginning of the year wasn’t as strong, but it has come back around. In the last few games he has punted very well.”
Yet, with the ball on the JMU 28-yard line with five minutes, 32 seconds to play in the third quarter and his team facing a 14-3 deficit, Morris put his trust in his offense on 4th-and-8. Quarterback Kyle Havens converted a pass to wide receiver Anthony Nelson for a 19-yard first down completion, setting up a 25-yard Violette field goal.
On the first UMass possession during an 11-10 loss on Homecoming weekend against the Spiders, Violette set up to punt in his own end zone and watched an arrant snap fly through his grasp and out of play for a safety. Following the self-inflicted score, an opportunistic Minutemen hands unit recovered the ensuing free kick and drove to the Richmond 22-yard line. Violette then missed a 43-yard field goal.
Still, he helped in the battle of field position, placing four out of five punts inside the opposing 20-yard line and connecting on a 25-yard field goal to extend the Minutemen lead to 10-5 with 1:51 left.
Against New Hampshire on Oct. 16, Morris chose to go for it on 4th-and-19 on the Wildcat 26-yard line in the first half and Violette missed two field goals, including a 40-yarder as time expired, as the Minutemen went into halftime down 15-0. Morris believes Violette was faced with unfortunate circumstances which led to his only miscues and still maintains confidence in him.
“Certainly, I have confidence in the offense on fourth down,” Morris said. “I also have confidence in Violette, now. Two field goals he missed were into the wind and the other, the hold was dropped and he still got it up and it hit the upright.”
Violette, a sophomore, assumed the punting and field goal duties at the beginning of the season over Brian Levengood, who is responsible for kickoffs. Violette is third in the Colonial Athletic Conference in scoring with 46 points (5.8 points per game), second only to kicker Mike Perry from Delaware.
He has converted 9-of-12 (75 percent) of his field goal attempts on the season, making all 19 extra points. Entering the game against the Spiders, Violette was a perfect 6-for-6 in field goals, but hadn’t attempted one longer than 37 yards.
Violette’s place kicking is reliable within a short field, yet he is 0-for-3 from over 40 yards. Morris is aware of his kicker’s limitations, opting to stay with his offense in most fourth down situations rather than test the leg of his kicker.
“The opportunities have been there, going a little too far for a field goal and confident enough offensively [to go for it],” Morris said. “At this point, if we’re not going for it and we are punting, they’re looking at me like ‘why?’ They don’t get it. There’s savvy, there’s smart and there’s stupid and I hope that [my decision] falls in the savvy and smart range more than stupid.”
Morris’s decisions are eased by the fact that UMass is 15-21 (71.4 percent) on fourth down conversions (first in CAA, sixth in the Football Championship Subdivision), but Violette’s lack of range can be a hindrance in the Minutemen’s ability to capitalize on premium field position.
UMass has two muffed punts this season, including a first quarter miscue against UNH which led to an 8-0 deficit. Then again, the Minutemen are 2-for-2 in onside kick attempts, converting one in their season opening upset win against William & Mary.
UMass held the Dukes to zero yards on kick returns, however, they are ninth in the CAA in net kickoff yards. Morris believes that his special teams has work to do, but is pleased with their progress.
“Overall, we still have work to do,” Morris said, “but we’re excited about our kickoff team and the way they came about the other day against a real good return team at JMU.”
Dan Gigliotti can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.