Countdown to Spring: Question No. 3

WASHINGTON STATE HAS a key question to answer in spring ball on special teams. And chances are if you had three guesses, you might not get it...

"One of the biggest issues of spring ball, which not many people will be looking at, is who the holder is going to be," WSU special teams coach and assistant head coach Eric Russell told CF.C last week at WSU's annual football celebration in Seattle.

David Gilbertson is gone, and who replaces him as holder is truly up in the air. That a holder needs a good pair of hands is a given. But another quality Russell looks for in a holder isn't necessarily one that first leaps to mind -- athleticism.

"Gilby did a great job last season," said Russell. "It's a role that flies under the radar a bit, but it's critical. We're looking for anybody with great hands and is athletic -- maybe a receiver like Bartolone or Marks, maybe a backup quarterback. It's a question we need to answer in spring ball."

Beyond that, all of the the Cougars' top return specialists are back from 2012.

Andrew Furney, who was nails in the Apple Cup and booted 14-20 field goals and 25-26 extra points last season is back, as is punter and kickoff specialist Mike Bowlin.

Teondray Caldwell, a sophomore-to-be, returned 27 kickoffs for 675 yards and was downright electric at times, while Leon Brooks, a senior-to-be, averaged 10.6 yards per punt return.

That doesn't mean they have cemented their roles for 2013.

Robert Lewis, the 155-pound "human joystick," will get a look returning both kickoffs and punts this spring, Russell said.

So will speedy running back Theron West, who redshirted last season.

Lewis enrolled at WSU last month after grayshirting in 2012. He will play slot receiver on offense, but his speed -- believed to make him one of the two fastest players on the team along with corner Alex Jackson -- makes him a natural candidate for return work.

As a high school senior in 2011, he racked up more than 700 yards in kick and punt returns.

Alex Den Bleyker, the Cougs' long snapper, also returns.

The low point for WSU in special teams came against UCLA, when the Cougars had a stunning four kicks blocked -- two punts and two field goals. That problem didn't rear its head before or after the UCLA game and would seem unlikely to resurface. Russell said he can't recall having four kicks blocked in a season let alone in a single game on his watch.

Something to look at:
Two years ago in 2011 the Cougs ranked at or near the bottom of the Pac-12 in net punting, punt-return yardage and kickoff coverage. One stat told the ultimate tale: allowing four kickoff returns of 90 yards or more.

In 2012, WSU remained near the bottom in net punting but moved to seventh in punt return yardage -- and they jumped all the way up to third in kickoff coverage.

The Cougs also had 18 touchbacks last year, a far cry from the 2011 campaign when they had all of one.

The net punting number also needs a clarifier -- the coverage wasn't all that bad. WSU averaged only 39.8 yards per punt in the air. Their net punting average was 35.6 for the season. If Bowlin can straighten out a few kicks and take advantage of what is a very strong leg, something he regularly did in practice but not in games, the Cougs are likely to make major gains in that coverage category for 2013.

WSU 2012 Special Teams Rankings in the Pac-12:
Kickoff returns - 4, (22.4)
Punt Return Average - 7, (6.8)
Net Punting - 11, (35.6)
Kickoff Coverage - 3, (40.8)
Field Goals - t-4, (14-20, 70 percent)
PAT - 8, (25-26, 96 percent)

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