CHARLOTTESVILLE — A few weeks ago, strong-legged sophomore Brian Delaney, Virginia’s kickoff specialist, sent a kickoff through the uprights in the end zone for an emphatic touchback.
Was he sending a message to his coaches that he could split the uprights on a more regular basis?
“If you want to say that,” Delaney said, laughing, after Saturday’s 16-13 upset of No. 16 Miami. “The ball was supposed to go a little bit more to the left anyway, but I’ll say I was aiming for the goal posts on that kickoff.”
Delaney always has been considered the strongest leg on the U.Va. roster, and this week, the coaching staff worked him into the competition between sophomore A.J. Mejia and freshman Hunter Pearson.
Mejia had been the starting kicker last season and for the first three games this year, going 1 for 4. Mejia had limited range, his longest make this season coming from 32 yards out.
When the Cavaliers opened ACC play, Pearson took over, and went 2 for 2 on field goals — both short kicks against Louisville.
This week, Delaney got into the competition and won the job.
“In practice, I’ve kept the competition and the stress high,” Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall said. “I just wasn’t happy with the way it was going. And Brian kept kicking the ball in the end zone on kickoffs. All of a sudden, his percentages started to say that he deserves consideration.”
Saturday, Delaney went 3 for 3 on field goals, connecting from 26, 46 and 32 yards as Virginia (4-2, 2-1 ACC) stunned the 16th ranked Hurricanes for its first win over a Top 25 team since 2014.
“There was definitely some nerves going, but everybody did a good job of helping me stay loose,” said Delaney, a Chantilly native who kicked and punted at Westfield High School. “I like to have a little bit of nerves. It keeps me in it.”
Delaney had a chance to ice the game with his fourth field goal try, a 29-yard attempt he put through the uprights. But Miami sophomore cornerback Travan Bandy ran into him, drawing a personal foul and an automatic first down.
The Hurricanes (5-2, 2-1) had no timeouts remaining, so U.Va. took the points off the board, accepted the penalty, and knelt once to end the upset.
“Instead of kicking off and having to hold them, we can end it right there, how everybody wants to end it, with a knee,” quarterback Bryce Perkins said.
Delaney said he had no problem giving up his fourth field goal to ensure the victory.
“I was down there and trying to think, ‘That’s a first down I’m pretty sure,’” Delaney said. “I don’t mind at all. Least of my worries.”
Delaney’s teammates said they had no worries about turning over the field goal duties to the player Mendenhall once described as the team’s “most highly touted” recruit in the 2016 class.
Perkins said during the week, Mendenhall would bring the whole team together to shout and distract the kickers as they attempted field goals from different spots on the field.
“Every time we did that period it was rowdy,” senior running back Jordan Ellis said. “He never got distracted. He was just making kicks. He was making 40, 50 yard kicks in practice. So we had confidence in him.”
Senior safety Juan Thornhill said all the players pay attention during the kicking competition, and he goes out of his way to try to block kicks, to help make sure the kickers are ready for game pressure.
Having a player who consistently makes field goals, and from greater distances, could be a game-changer for the Cavaliers.
“That’s a huge part of our team,” sophomore safety Joey Blount said. “The last couple of years, it’s been a struggle. It’s been a, ‘Is he going to make it?’ kind of holding on to your seats.”
Saturday, in the biggest win of the Mendenhall era, Delaney made all his kicks. And after the game — with Thornhill, who had two interceptions, nowhere to be found — Delaney got to swing the hammer and break the rock, U.Va.’s new victory tradition.
“I thought he earned it,” Delaney said of Thornhill, who said fans who rushed the field were holding him up taking photos and he wanted to oblige. “But everyone was in there yelling my name. Felt great.”
Does Delaney have the job locked up going forward? That’s not how he’s viewing it as Virginia prepares to play at Duke (5-1, 1-1) next weekend.
“It’s going to be a competition this week,” Delaney said. “I have no idea what my role is going to be next week.”