’15 Cougs: A 180-degree turn on special teams

LEWISTON -- To zero in on why WSU’s special teams have been so poor, look to desire. If one player doesn’t want to play special teams, that’s one player too many and stretching back a decade, there have been too many Cougs who did not embrace special teams play. But less than 24 hours into the ’15 fall camp, there’s been a shift, as I discovered in my talk with special teams coach Eric Mele.

For second-string players and Cougar rookies, the start fall camp isn’t only about trying to climb the ladder at their position. It also means a chance to tryout and perform on special teams. In years past, and in a trend mirroring college football as a whole, getting Cougar players to volunteer wasn’t easy. But that is changing.

“I’m really excited this year, I’ve had several players come up to me and ask to be on the punt and kick coverage, usually I have to ask players to join,” Mele said.

Mele in ’15 enters his first full season coaching the special teams, having taken over when Eric Russel was dismissed after six games last year.

“My biggest focus this offseason was to change the mentality and culture of special teams,” Mele said. “I’m not going to force anything, but I wanted the players to have respect for this aspect of the game. Special teams is one-third of football, and we needed to have that mentality to improve.”

And there’s lots of room for improvement. WSU’s special teams were historically bad in ’14. The kicking game might have been the most visible -- Cougar kickers couldn’t hit it between the uprights on a consistent basis on field goals (11-17) and several extra points barely slid through (47-48). The mental game is more than half the battle when it comes to kicking, Mele said.

“At this level, these guys can really kick -- we only fix things that are glaring issues, but the problem can be their mentality,” Mele said. “I’ve been trying to instill confidence in the guys and make them comfortable in all situations.”

Presuming WSU doesn't want to double up its punter and kicker in one leg, the placekicking job appears likely to come down to Matt Abramo, Brett Schafer (pictured above) and, once his paperwork clears, Blake Levin. Erik Powell and Zach Charme could also be in the mix but seem most likely to battle for the punting job. With his kickers, Mele wants them to live in the moment.

“I want them to look at every kick the same,” said Mele. “Each field goal should be just as important as the next. If they overthink the situation or the score, they could get freaked out. But if it’s just another kick, then they’ll be able to go out and perform.”

The Cougars also struggled mightily in the return game, both in coverage and in getting a return to work. Last season, WSU gave up a jaw dropping six returns for score (three kickoffs, three punts) including a pair in the Cal game -- the last straw for Russell’s tenure on the Palouse. But Mele has some pieces to work with in ’15 when it comes to the coverage units. (Look for a CF.C article this week that delves more into that aspect).

Meanwhile, there are three key things to look for when choosing a punt returner, Mele said.

“I need a player who is courageous or fearless because returning punts can be terrifying,” said Mele. “Second, I need the returner to be smart, and be able to answer questions like, ‘Should I fair catch this?’ or, ‘Do I have space for a return?’ Finally, the obvious feature the returner needs to have is good hands.”

The three most visible positions (punter, kicker and long snapper) are all wide open, Mele said. He wants hungry guys who are comfortable being in the high-pressure situations. At long snapper, and after presumed heir-apparent Joe Lang left for UNLV in June and Jerred Sonneborn and Chris Dalrymple departed as well, the Cougars started looking for a different body type in the middle, with Lucas Gravelle (6-0, 220) and Kyle Celli (6-1, 230) fitting the bill.

“I wish Joe the best, I hope things work out for him. We changed schemes and now we’re looking for a guy who is linebacker-sized who can long snap. The biggest reason for that is a bigger guy gives another defender on punt coverage,” Mele said.

Special teams might have the most question marks of any unit with fall camp just one day old. But Mele seems a good choice to come up with the right answers between now and the season opener vs. Portland State on Sept. 5.

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