Mele: Watch for these young Cougs on returns; A wide ranging CF.C special teams conversation with special teams coach Eric Mele

ERIC MELE, in a wide ranging special teams conversation with, pointed to a veteran-laden group of special teams returnees in 2017. The Cougs also showed considerable special teams improvement in 2016, jumping 52 spots in Football Outsiders special teams rankings over the previous year. But there are also a number of Cougar rookies in 2017 in the special teams mix, and that includes in the return game.

Cougar slot receiver Renard Bell (pictured above) figures to get a look on both kickoff and punt returns.  Mele mentioned five names squarely in the mix for kickoff returner, two of whom will arrive this summer. Senior-to-be Robert Taylor is the incumbent, with 20 returns last year. But two second-year freshmen will compete with him this spring in Skyler Thomas and Bell, Mele said.

“Some of these new guys coming in will get a crack for sure -- I think Travell Harris will get a good look and also Caleb Perry,” said Mele.

The Cougs will have a new punt returner in ’17, with walk on Kaleb Fossum departing for a scholie at Nevada. Mele had nothing but praise for Fossum, but noted WSU should also have more speed on punt returns in 2017.  Veterans Jamal Morrow (3 punt returns, 131 yards in 2016) and Taylor are the “safe bets,” said Mele. But Bell and Easop Winston are also strong candidates, said Mele, and he’s highly intrigued by what incoming true freshman Jamire Calvin might do in that role come fall ball.

Punter Zach Charme is no longer with the program, Mele said.  But Kyle Sweet booted the majority of WSU’s punts last year (32) with Charme (8) and Erik Powell (7) handling the rest.  Mele said he plans to continue the three-headed approach at punter - rugby, traditional and left-footed - in order to keep opponents guessing with Tommy Park replacing Charme. At the same time he doesn’t want to overextend Powell in the punting game, as he already handles the field goals and kickoffs.

“The way we finished last year is how we’ll go into this year, using multiple guys back there at punter to keep opponents off balance.  You may not have seen the last of Powell back there. Tommy Park is a redshirt freshman from Mount Vernon who is more of a traditional punter. He’s going to get a good look. And then Kyle Sweet,” said Mele.

All the punt shield guys are back. But you could see new names in the protection in ’17.

"Garrett McBroom, Cole Madison, B.J. Salmonson are the guys who kind of finished the year for us there and then on the depth chart, Frederick Mauigoa was in the mix there last year, Daniel Ekuale is in the mix and I’ll take a look at a few others like Josh Watson, Lyric Bartley, Danny Bender. We’ll see if those guys are a fit,” said Mele.

WSU will have a new long snapper, with Lucas Gravelle moving on in search of landing a scholarship.

Kyle Celli is more than capable. I think the transition to long snapper for him will be pretty seamless. We still have to tighten up his short snapping,” said Mele.  

Also competing at long snapper will be Sacramento product Jack Haney (6-0, 226), a true freshman walk on with this Cougars this past season. In addition, Matthew Allen out of Redmond, Ore., is scheduled to join Wazzu this fall as a preferred walk on.

At gunner, Mele likes the skills sets of D’Jimon Jones and Marcus Strong.

“And I want to take a look at Sean Harper, and then Skyler Thomas, I want to give him a look too,” said Mele.

MELE ALSO HAS a pair of “all over" special teamers who might not gain the fan attention, but who are hugely important to the overall success.

Nate DeRider has been on three special teams units for us his whole career and he’s excellent. He’s on punt team, kickoff team and he’s a guy that helps us get lined up on punt return. He’s a mainstay. He’s kind of an unsung guy but he makes plays for us. You can count on him all over the field,” said Mele.

Second-year freshman Dillon Sherman might become the new DeRider, who will be a fifth-year senior in 2017. Sherman’s name came up in the conversation about the punt blocker-types.

“We should have had a few more blocks than we had last year with guys getting to block point but not making it happen,” said Mele.  “But you want explosive, quick first step guys there who can bend and have low pad level. Dillon Sherman is like that, and I think he can be a guy who can show up all over special teams for us this year … If he didn’t have an injury in fall camp, I don’t think I would have redshirted him. So I’m excited to see him sort of all over the field. Justus Rogers is another guy who blocked punts in high school, so we’ll see what he can do. There are more but those are two guys I’ll for sure take a look at.”

ON KICKOFF RETURN DEFENSE, Mele was pleased with what a pair of freshmen did last year in Derek Moore and Nnamdi Oguayo.

“They played every game, every kickoff and did a heck of a job. When you have two young guys playing like that, I was hoping to steal some reps from them but they ended up being two of our better guys on the kickoff unit.  We also did some things scheme-wise that kept the opponent off balance, and that’s always fun,” said Mele.

Powell, meanwhile, increased his touchbacks this past year with 35 in 2016, compared to 21 in 2015.  “And I think he’ll increase them again this year,” said Mele, who isn’t the only member of his household who is a fan of Powell. 

“One of my daughters has a little 46 jersey she wears to the games and Erik has been over to our house,” said Mele. “He knows how to deal with adversity at this point, we’ve talked about that a lot and he’s gone through pretty much every scenario possible almost situationally. I think he’s ready for anything that gets thrown at him.”

Powell had a rough start to the 2016 season, missing his first five field goals. But he made 9 of his last 10.

"Credit to him for being resilient, keeping his head down and focused on trying to do his job. The other thing that make him a special kid, and to his teammates too, out in Midnight Maneuvers he gets a black shirt every time. He’s one of the best guys we have in the weight room. He has the weightlifting numbers, and the running numbers as well, to back it up. And he really varies the different things we can do, by varying his kickoffs and now getting some punting in,” said Mele.

Fossum was also Powell’s holder, with Mele saying Sweet or Trey Tinsley are strong candidates to assume that role.

TAKING INTO ACCOUNT all of the special teams units, with all the moving parts, how do things shape up from an overall sense heading into spring and on into the 2017 campaign?

"We won’t have to do as much on the corrections, we can focus more on the smaller, subtle technique and nuances – things like hand placement, where their eyes are, getting proper leverage, instead of ‘Hey, you were supposed to block that guy.’  That might sound silly but when we first took the thing over, you’d have guys going the wrong direction ... The goal now is to improve, and improve overall depth, and just keeping better. We’ve got a lot of guys coming back. I think we can be pretty good," said Mele.

THE FINAL CULINARY WORD: O-line coach Clay McGuire recently gave a less than glowing review to CF.C for a restaurant Mele picked out on the recruiting trail in January:  “Every time I go out recruiting with Coach Mele, he has a knack for great food. And he has Portland (recruiting territory) which has some of the best food anywhere. Every time we go recruiting to Portland, he always takes me to some amazing place I’ve never been before. This time he took me to a Vietnamese place in Portland and ... I had duck legs. And let me tell you, they were not very good. Duck legs and fish sauce. That was pretty bad," said McGuire.

We asked Mele about it. 

“You have to understand, this is a guy who loves anything he can put ketchup on,” Mele deadpanned. “You could order a chateaubriand or a piece of Wagyu beef and here’s McGuire, ‘Hey, where’s the A-1 sauce?!’  Seriously, I’ve literally heard that.  It’s unreal.”

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