Standing on the field a little over two weeks ago in muggy Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium after Virginia Tech’s resounding 64-17 victory against East Carolina, Joey Slye felt like the clouds were finally lifting.
Now, it’s not so clear again. He’s in the unique position of being in the midst of establishing and pursuing a few prominent Tech career records, while enduring his most inconsistent season thus far.
A four-year starter for No. 16 Tech, which travels Saturday to play Boston College (2-3, 0-2 ACC), Slye needs just seven points to pass Shayne Graham (371 career points) for the Hokies’ all-time scoring leader. At the same time, Slye has made only 8 of 14 field goal attempts this season, including 5 of 10 beyond 29 yards.
Though Tech coach Justin Fuente and special-teams coordinator James Shibest haven’t specifically indicated a change at kicker is imminent, Slye’s struggles are clearly bothersome. After abruptly conceding at Monday’s press conference that he’s concerned about Slye’s performance, Fuente offered more insight Monday night on the Tech Talk Live radio show.
“I’ve been supportive of Joey and continue to let him know that we’re behind him 100 percent,” Fuente said on the radio show. “I want him to continue to get better, but he has struggled. You can’t dodge that question or that fact. I feel like our protection has been good, our operation has been pretty good. We’ve just got to get it dialed in. He’s obviously got plenty of leg. It’s just a matter of hitting it true and getting it through the uprights.”
In addition to barreling down on Graham’s school career scoring mark, Slye also moved past Graham for the most successful field goals in school history this season.
Slye’s 37-yard field goal with 43 seconds left in the second quarter against ECU — his third successful field goal in less than eight minutes against the Pirates — put him atop Tech’s career field goals list with 69. He now has 71.
His 3-for-3 effort in field goals against ECU appeared to be a case of Slye righting the ship. After misfiring or having a kick blocked four times in seven overall attempts against West Virginia and Delaware, while mixing in a career-long 50-yard boot against the Blue Hens (his first made kick from more than 49 yards in nine career attempts), Slye’s head was spinning.
Connecting on kicks of 25, 34 and 37 yards at ECU seemed to raise his spirits. Slye, a senior from Stafford who hasn’t been made available for interviews since the ECU postgame, was optimistic his early-season slump was in the past.
“That first game (1 of 3 against West Virginia, with misses from 32 and 38 yards) was a hiccup that I’ve never honestly experienced in my life in any facet of sports all the way back from when I was a little kid,” Slye said after the ECU game. “It was something that my kicking coach and my parents told me it might’ve been something that needed to happen for some wisdom, some experience under your belt, but I definitely don’t ever want something like that to happen. I mean, I learned from it.”
His resurgence in the ECU game was short-lived. He’s made two of his last four attempts.
Two weekends ago in Tech’s 38-0 win against Old Dominion, he failed on a 27-yard attempt – his first miss in 28 career attempts from under 30 yards — and made a 31-yard kick. Last Saturday in Tech’s 31-17 loss to Clemson, he made a 43-yard attempt with 3:10 left in the second quarter to cut the Tigers’ lead to 10-3, but he was wide right on a 45-yard kick with two seconds left in the quarter.
Barring catastrophic failure, injuries or off-the-field issues, in-season turnover at kicker is a rarity for many college programs, Tech (4-1, 0-1) included. Since the start of the 1987 season, no Tech kicker has been replaced as the full-time starter at the position based on performance.
In November 2013, Tech’s Cody Journell was kicked off the team by then-coach Frank Beamer for violations of team rules, resulting in Erik Christensen and Michael Branthover assuming kicking duties in the final three games of the season.
Journell was also suspended from the team in December 2011 when he was charged at the time with felony breaking and entering (ultimately pleaded down to misdemeanor trespassing), which paved the way for Justin Myer to kick for Tech in the 2012 Sugar Bowl. Journell missed a game against Duke in the ’11 season with a quad strain and was replaced against the Blue Devils by Tyler Weiss.
In 2002, Tech’s Carter Warley missed four games with a back injury. Nic Schmitt and Jon Mollerup filled in for him. Tech kicker Ryan Williams missed playing time in 1994 with a separated shoulder, which gave Atle Larsen a chance to kick.
Otherwise, since the start of the ’87 season, only spot attempts by Tech backups have accounted for field-goal attempts from kickers other than the full-time guy.
Slye, who has made 71 of 99 career field-goal attempts (only 20 of 41 from beyond 39 yards), is backed up by redshirt freshman Brian Johnson from Washington, D.C. He got to play for the first and only time thus far in his college career at ECU, where he booted Tech’s final extra point of the game.
Despite his place-kicking issues, Slye carries value beyond his ability to put it through the uprights. He’s arguably the nation’s best on kickoffs, putting 32 of his 34 kickoffs in or through the back of the end zone for touchbacks.
Last month, Shibest said he had tried to leave Slye alone and let him work through his problems in the first two games on his own, but Shibest admits he doesn’t care for some of Slye’s analytical ways. In purposely simplistic terms, Shibest has encouraged Slye to “aim for the middle.” It’s a rudimentary way to look at the process, but Shibest prefers the uncluttered approach.
“There’s no question,” Shibest said Sept. 11. “We’re going to be in a lot of close games this year, and Joey’s going to have to execute his job more consistently, so that’ll play out as the season goes.”
Wood can be reached by phone at 757-247-4642 or Twitter at @normwood