Mele wants smart & crazy on WSU special teams

PULLMAN -- Eric Mele, entering his first season as a full-fledged Washington State assistant coach, goes right to the heart of the matter when asked what kind of football players can wake WSU from its decade-long malaise on special teams.

"I want guys that are half-mental cases running down the field. Smart enough to have lane integrity but also crazy to see something in front of them and never break stride," said Mele, who took over WSU's special teams on an interim basis following Eric Russell's firing in the middle of last season and has since had the "interim" label dropped from his title.

Lane integrity and directional kicking were both major problems for the Cougars' special teams in 2014. Those fundamental breakdowns were less about physical execution, or lack thereof, than mental focus, Mele told in a recent interview.

So job No. 1 in the spring practice season that starts March 26 is to find players -- be they starters, backups, scholarship athletes or walks ons -- who will bring pride and passion to playing special teams, Mele said.

Pride and passion, he noted, promote mental focus.

And once those guys with the shared values start to experience success, he says, "they're going to feed off that energy when they're out there enjoying making those plays and realizing how important it is. We're going to stress that. We're going to stress how important that phase of the game is. It can win or lose football games for you."

Indeed, special teams miscues wreaked havoc for the Cougars in 2014. Cal, USC, Arizona and Utah all returned punts or kickoffs, or both, for touchdowns against the Cougars. WSU ranked 11th in the Pac-12 and 88th in the nation in kick return defense, and a woeful 123rd out of 125 FBS teams in punt return defense.

MELE'S APPRECIATION FOR QUALITY SPECIAL teams runs deep. He spent five seasons as the special teams coordinator at Division II Wingate University in Indiana and two more at his alma Mater, Division III William Paterson University in New Jersey. He also played on special teams when he was a safety and linebacker at William Paterson.

He said this spring on the Palouse will be something of an open tryout for special teams players. But he does have some favorites in mind.

Players like linebackers Jeremiah Allison, Parker Henry, Frankie Luvu and Dylan Hanser, and walk on safety Colton Teglovic bring the type of attitude and outlook to special teams that can be infectious, said Mele.

He also noted that receiver-turned-running back Keith Harrington, who redshirted last season, is a guy who can compete on special teams right away. Mele said he's excited to see the 5-7, 174-pound Florida native return kicks and punts, as well as play gunner. Veteran receiver Gabe Marks, who also redshirted last season, is another intriguing option for returns and the gunner position, Mele said.

He believes Teglovic and fellow defensive backs Sebastian LaRue and Willie Roach could be ideal gunners as well since they possess an almost-frenzied desire to make tackles.

In addition, Mele sees Harrington developing into a good punt blocker, with LaRue and DBs Charleston White and Treshon Broughton holding promise as field goal blockers.

Finding a punt returner is especially difficult, Mele said, because you need someone who won't flinch amid the odds stacked against him waiting for the ball to come down.

"Punt returners are special guys ... you really want an aggressive guy who is fearless back there," Mele said. "You're getting these guys running down full speed and you're looking straight up in the air to catch the ball so you have to trust your teammates. It doesn't really work out great for them if somebody misses a block."

Last season, now-graduated Rickey Galvin fielded all but four of the 23 punts the Cougars returned. Sophomore-to-be River Cracraft handled the others.

At punter, the Cougars appear set with returning starter Jordan Dascalo, a sophomore-to-be who last season averaged 41.6 yards on 49 kicks and put 13 inside the 20. But Erik Powell and Luvu, the linebacker, will get a look at the position. Mele said many Polynesian players such as Luvu, who is from Pago Pago, are able to punt the ball well from their days of playing rugby, so he will get a look this spring.

Dascalo, Powell and Quentin Breshears will compete for the placekicking chores, though the competition will grow in August with the addition of new signee Matt Abramo and one or more likely walk ons.

At long snapper, the Cougars need a new man for the first time in four years. Alex Den Bleyker's departure opens a three-way battle to replace him. The contenders this spring are sophomore-to-be Joe Lang (6-3, 216); third-year sophomore-to-be Jerred Sonneborn (6-1, 252) and junior college walk on transfer Lucas Gravelle (6-0, 220) out of Niagara Falls.

MELE SAID THE COUGARS WILL again protect the punter using the "shield" scheme. With it, the front line is filled with linebackers and safeties, while three defensive linemen form a shield situated between the line and the punter.

Shield players last season were Daniel Ekuale, Darryl Paulo and Destiny Vaeao. Mele said they did a fine job. Offensive lineman B.J. Salmonson was a backup in the shield last season and could find his way on the field in that capacity in 2015, Mele said.

Come August, true freshman receiver Kyle Sweet is a guy who may get a long look as a return man, Mele said.

Cougfan Top Stories