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Ratcliffe: Lewis ready to revitalize UVa special teams

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Posted: Wednesday, February 20, 2013 9:22 pm

Jeff Banks didn’t stick around Charlottesville long enough to become acquainted with the Gus Burger, a Grillswith or Spudnut, but he knows a little something about the guy who was hired to take his place.

Banks was in town for nine days as Virginia’s new special teams coordinator and running backs coach, but understandably bolted when Texas A&M and longtime friend Kevin Sumlin floated an assistant head coach’s title and mega bucks his way. It took Cavaliers head coach Mike London and UVa senior associate AD Jon Oliver no time to find Banks’ replacement: Larry Lewis.

At the time, the buzz was, hey if you can’t have the student, hire the teacher. Word was that Lewis taught Banks everything he knew.

Well, at one time that was probably true, when Lewis coached Banks (the player) at Washington State. Since then, they’ve coached together and shared knowledge for a long time.

While the renovated Virginia coaching staff is preparing for spring football a few weeks from now, one of the most intriguing phases of the spring will be what Lewis does with special teams. That has been a sore spot with Wahoo fans ever since the Chick-fil-A Bowl at the conclusion of the 2011 season, so any improvement will be welcomed.

“The one thing that resonates with Larry is discipline,” said Banks in a telephone interview from College Station, Texas. “The three things about Larry’s players, whether it be special teams or running backs, or whatever, are: discipline, hard work and playing with a motor or a purpose.”

No matter where Lewis coached or whether he was the head coach or a coordinator, he always took immense pride in the special teams unit and worked relentlessly to make them better. Even at Washington State back in the late ‘90s, Lewis didn’t have the best talent in the world but he always got the best out of what he had and it showed statistically.

Most fans don’t realize that there’s a subculture out there in the football world of special teams geeks, and we mean that in the most complimentary way. These certain guys are really into this special teams thing.

“Jeff and I have worked together a lot on things over the years,” Lewis said in a recent interview. “It really has evolved. I kind of started [the special teams culture] but Jeff has taken the bull by the horns. We’ve done a lot of good things together … a lot of back-and-forth.”

The two talk regularly. In fact, Banks estimates they’ve talked at least every other week for the past nine years, more than most of you talk to your mother.

They share most everything in terms of special teams secrets.

“I’ll ask him or he’ll ask me, ‘Hey, what did you do in this scheme last week?’” Lewis said.

“We learned a lot from each other, and I learned all the techniques from Larry, then developed my own system,” Banks said. “Since then, we share those ideas in the offseason.”

The two keep an eye on what the other is teaching on how those teams are performing.

“Watching Nevada this past season, Larry’s a very difficult guy to coach against because people don’t know how hard [Nevada’s special teams players] were going to run on units and how hard they were going to play,” Banks pointed out.

Lewis said his philosophy is simple: play hard, have fun, and attack. London likes that last one. He wants a more aggressive group of special teams and Lewis believes that it’s his squads’ jobs to put the offense and defense in the best position possible.

This isn’t some jumbled up, thrown together plan. It’s a science and a bit of an art.

Banks learned that early and said there’s a distinct difference between guys who are really into coaching special teams and those who are just assigned to coach them.

“Number one, you can’t teach what you don’t know,” Banks said. “When you’re not coordinator of it and just a position coach, you don’t always see the big picture.

“A special team coach believes in what he’s doing and that it really matters in a game, that there’s a reason why they win or lose,” Banks said. “Sometimes a head coach doesn’t know much about special teams because maybe he’s never crossed over into that or doesn’t have the passion.”

There are some who do, though, including John Harbaugh, Banks pointed out.

“Those are the kinds of guys you hang out with in the offseason, learning anything, everything you can,” Banks said.

That’s what special teams guys do. Lewis is that kind of guy. He’s always learning new things, always curious about football knowledge.

That’s the main reason he went to Nevada, to learn the “Pistol” offense from the guy who invented it, Chris Ault.

“It was fascinating,” Lewis said of the experience. “But to learn it from the guy who created it was even more special.”

Lewis said that’s one reason the decision to come to Virginia wasn’t a difficult one after Ault decided to retire in December. Lewis had other offers, none on the East coast and none in the ACC.

“I kind of felt like maybe being on the west side so long that I kind of had gotten stagnant in some things in recruiting and even coaching,” Lewis said. “I decided this would open a lot of new doors to coach in a different area of the country against different schools I’ve never faced.”

Lewis said he’s also eager to share knowledge from the various Virginia coaches, including Tom O’Brien, the former head coach at Boston College and N.C. State. With O’Brien, Lewis and new offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild, the Cavaliers will boast three former head coaches on their offensive staff.

“Yes, there is a different little world of special teams coordinators out there,” Lewis confessed. “But I think it’s the style of coaching that matters, too. I have a philosophy on how to teach it so that eventually when your freshmen come in, the seniors are teaching the freshmen.”

So, what should Virginia fans expect from Lewis coached special teams this fall?

“Larry’s going to use really good players,” Banks said. “Mike London is committed to it and will allow him to use quality players. But the Number One thing fans will notice is that they will be sound and not beat themselves.

“Larry is very sound in covering kicks,” Banks said. “That’s an easy way to get beat in football. All his teams play well and it’s hard to get big returns against his squads.”

Virginia fans will say hallelujah.

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