Special teams: Has WSU turned the corner? Intriguing numbers over last six games in KO coverage, PR defense

WITH ALL THE rankings and ratings out there this preseason on Washington State, one thing that hasn't been talked about nearly enough: special teams. Kickoff coverage and punt return defense have been the biggest special teams bugaboos for the Cougs the last two seasons but a closer look at last year reveals some intriguing numbers in both stat categories.

Through seven games last season, it was special teams misery for Cougar fans as WSU gave up a nation-leading four TD returns — two on kickoffs and two on punts.  But the last six games of the 2015 campaign saw a complete turnaround for special teams coach Eric Mele's units

Over the final five regular season games plus the Sun Bowl, the Cougs allowed an average of 4.54 yards on punt returns. On kickoffs, WSU allowed an average of 18.42 yards over the last six games.

If Mele's troops can produce those kinds of numbers over the course of a full season, Cougar fans would leap for joy. 

Another big special teams focus for Cougar fans in 2016: the TD return drought.

it’s been an interminably long time since Washington State took a punt or a kickoff back to the house (2003 since a KO return for score; 2005 for a punt return).  Freshman kickoff returner Tavares Martin Jr. looked close a couple times last season. He finished eighth in the Pac-12 in kickoff returns at 22.1 ypr.

Star wideout Gabe Marks was the leading punt returner for WSU last season (11 for 106 yards, long of 30). It will be intriguing on opening day to see if Marks is again back there fielding punts -- or if the Cougs go with Kyrin Priester, who had four punt returns for 22 hashes, or someone else.

Punter Zach Charme averaged 39.6 yards per boot last season, ranking 93rd nationally.  But the gap is small: another 2.4 yards would have put him in the top 50 nationally. That said, punting (and kickoffs) are never about just the most yards. It's all about the combination of hang time and yardage, to produce the fewest net yards possible. 

Meanwhile, WSU looks very solid at placekicker, with Erik Powell connecting on 20 of 26 field goal tries last season (fourth most in WSU history). He was also 49-of-49 on extra points. Powell told CF.C this month his goals for 2016 include more distance, and more touchbacks, on his kickoffs.

If last year is any indication, Mele will approach the start of fall camp looking to build his special teams depth chart with between 30 and 40 players. There’s a tricky balance to employing starters on special teams, with Mele saying last year he doesn't want to detract from other areas. That said, one special teams success story came about due to a starter asking Mele for special teams reps, see link below.

RELATED STORY: Inside a special teams success story

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