Breaking down Wazzu special teams two-deeps with Eric Mele

PULLMAN —Eric Mele’s special teams units in 2017 could be the difference between a Rose Bowl appearance and an early Christmas vacation for the Cougs. CF.C talked to Mele to get a sense of where the WSU special teams depth chart stands after 10 spring ball practices. Among the insights: one Cougar is currently the leading candidate for both punt and kickoff returns ... but not for long.

Punt Returner
1. Robert Taylor (5-10, 183, pictured above) 
2. Jamal Morrow, senior (5-9, 200)

Mele says Taylor is currently at the top of the depth chart for returning both kickoffs and punts, but says he won’t use the same player for both duties.

Returning punts requires a little more finesse than the sheer speed a kickoff man needs, and while Taylor has the physical skills for either responsibility, his knack for reading patterns on the other side of the ball will serve WSU best on punt returns, says Mele.

Morrow has also shown he can explode past the best Cougar defensive packages, but it’s his ability to pivot without sacrificing speed that has him slotted here rather than the straight-ahead speedster group vying to return kickoffs.

“You don’t have to be a 4.4 (40-yard dash) guy to be a punt returner. If you can catch the ball and get up the field, and make one guy miss" you're all set, says Mele.

Kickoff Returner
1. James Williams, sophomore (5-11, 192)
2. Renard Bell, freshman (5-8, 155)

“The punt returner’s gotta be courageous under fire. The kickoff returner is a little further back. They have a little more time to sort things out,” explained Mele.

With that in mind, it only makes sense that Mele would put some fast guys he can as the kickoff returners, while letting veterans handle the punts — and both Williams and Bell have been explosive with the ball in spring practices.

1. Erik Powell, senior (6-1, 201 pounds)
2. Jack Crane, freshman (6-2, 190)

After Powell’s 2-for-4 field goal performance in Saturday’s scrimmage, Mele is confident Powell will turn things around.

“He’s kicking the ball great,” said Mele of Powell, stressing that he has “no concern” about his top kicker’s ability to step up when it counts.

“If he keeps doing what he’s doing, we’ll be in good shape,” said Mele.

On Thursday's practice, the Cougar kickers were 17-20, or 85 percent — far more in line with what Mele wants from his crew's field goal attempts.

Even taking into account the misses last Saturday, no Cougar kicker has had the combination of range and accuracy that Powell has displayed this spring. Obviously, he’s not perfect, as both Mele and head coach Mike Leach would like, but from what I’ve seen there’s no question that Powell is the clear starter.

Crane looks like the logical next man up. His leg has been both more powerful and more accurate than the other placekickers on the roster, third-year sophomore Brett Schafer (5-9, 174), and senior Mitchell Cox (6-0, 193).

1. Erik Powell 
2. Kyle Sweet, junior (6-0, 192)
3. Tommy Park, freshman (5-10, 176)

“Right now, Powell is the x-factor there, starting all three units, but he can put the boot to it,” said Mele, confirming that it’s possible for Powell to have three special teams duties — punting, kicking off, and kicking field goals — come fall, though he's also previously said he wants to guard against overextending Powell.

“Sweet’s really consistent, does a great job doing the Australian rules type of thing, and Tommy’s a more traditional punter,” Mele added.

All things remaining equal, in the regular season I would expect to see Powell and Sweet alternate as the punter, depending on what the game and opponent might call for, with Sweet getting more punts than anyone else (just like last season). Whenever Sweet lines up for a rugby kick the opponent also has to prepare, given Sweet's speed and tackle evading maneuvers, that he will take off and run for the first down.

Long Snapper
1. Kyle Celli, junior (6-1, 240) 
2. Jack Haney, redshirt freshman (6-0, 226)

If Celli were big enough to play center in shotgun formations, he might have a real shot at making a play for the starting center job. At 240 pounds, he’s not a realistic option of course -- but as a long snapper on both punts and field goal attempts, Celli simply does not make mistakes. His snaps have been outstanding this spring.

Haney gets the backup nod by virtue of being the only other long snapper on the roster — that’s no knock to him, of course, as he’s been solid, and hasn’t made any mistakes.

1. Erik Powell
2. Brett Schafer

They have the two most powerful legs on the team, that’s pretty much all there is to say about it (other than Mele always wants the requisite hang time to go in combination with the length).

1. Trey Tinsley, sophomore (6-3, 201)
2. Kyle Celli

“He looks good,” said Mele of backup QB Tinsley in the holder's role. And Powell agrees that Tinsley is doing a fine job receiving and placing snaps down for the field goal tries. The second string is where things get a little complicated, however, as Celli obviously can’t snap to himself.

“Celli’s probably the second best (at holding for place kicks) on our team right now,” said Mele. “That’s a competition for the fall as well.”

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