Bitancurt and fellow kicker Corey Smith both saw multiple kicks get swatted or tipped during live drills this spring, and the number of those blocks certainly raised concern for a unit that struggled at times during the 2010 campaign. Bitancurt understands that, but also thinks that the problems can be ironed out.
"We have a new holder in, and we are working to get our times right," Bitancurt said. "We're a little slow right now, so that [the blocks] is to be expected. I'm pretty confident we'll be fine."
The new man on the unit is Michael Molinari, a fellow kicker who is replacing Jeremy Kash as the holder for 2011. Kash was a four-year performer at the position, and in addition to his experience had developed a solid rapport with Bitancurt. Rebuilding that comfort level isn't an immediate process, but Bitancurt believes it will come.
"Mike is just getting used to being on the field, to getting the ball down and spinning it at the right time," he said. "It's just a matter of experience and consistency, and just something we have to work on."
The long snapper and holder are unnoticed parts of the placekicking game until something goes wrong. A mistake there, such as an off-target snap or a drop, are immediately noticeable, but so too are smaller issues. A snap that's a couple tenths of a second slower than normal or a misplacement of the ball might not be observable, but they can destroy the rhythm and timing of a kick as surely as a bigger error. Not only can they result in misses, but they can also contribute to slowness in getting a kick away – and that can lead to more blocks.
The good news for this situation is that, perhaps more than any other position, kickers, holders and snappers can improve over the summer. While it's true they won't face a live rush, they can hone their consistency in the process and time themselves to make sure kicks are getting away in the required time. The important factor in all of this is that every repetition should help in putting all of the necessary factors together.
"I'll work with Mike and [long snapper] Cody Nutter on getting that consistency, just like I had with Kash," Bitancurt said. "Just like I worked with them last summer, we'll do that again this year.
"That's pretty much how we work through the season," Bitancurt continued in describing his off-season sessions. "We don't work with coaches a lot. We do a lot on our own. In the summer we can meet up and work whenever we want."
Without any kicking specialist coaches on the Mountaineer staff (few schools have one), Bitancurt, like most kickers, is left to his own devices when it comes to looking for outside coaching help. Teammates can help if they see a major issue, but Bitancurt has only a few people he trusts to tinker or offer suggestions on the state of his performance.
"Paul Woodside is my man," he said of the former Mountaineer who helps when he has a problem. "I will call and get advice from him if I need it, and I will see him this summer. Paul pretty much taught me, and he knows me really well. He can help me get things straight. I do like to do things on my own, and I am only comfortable with certain people, and he's one of them."
While Bitancurt and his teammates work to develop better timing and a quicker getaway, there are other problems that can factor into the block issue. Those were notable on a couple of occasions last year, when Bitancurt saw four kicks get blocked. On at least two of those occasions, shoddy protection from the line contributed heavily to the blocks, and with West Virginia's questions on the offensive line, it certainly remains a factor to be watched closely during the fall.
The fine line between good and great kicking units was never so clearly drawn as the one which separated Bitancurt's freshman and sophomore seasons. As a freshman, he made 13 of his 15 attempts, including the huge game-winner against Pitt, and earned a first team spot on the all-Big East team while suffering no blocks. As a sophomore, his numbers dropped to 10 successes in 17 attempts, including those four blocks. Just as it did this spring, various problems contributed to those failures a year ago, and those must be corrected for WVU to have a reliable and consistent kicking game in 2011. For his part, Bitancurt believes it will be developed, but the definitive outcome won't be known until the games begin.