Special Opportunity

There's a tendency to discount the value of players who don't earn starting roles, but what's overlooked is that those individuals might end up playing just as many snaps as the guys atop the depth chart.

Whether they play one one, two or more special teams, they fill a vital role. And for players like K.J. Dillon, who will also be a "starter" in West Virginia's nickel and dime packages, the value is even more pronounced. When total plays are counted up at the end of the year, it's likely that Dillon's final number will be right there with many other defenders.

Given an average of 10-12 punts and a like number of kickoffs per game, it's not hard to see busy special teamers getting at least 40 plays per game in those areas. Add in another 15-20 as a member of situational defensive packages, and as the backup at free safety, and he won't be wanting for action.

"I'm playing the free and bandit (strong safety) and in the nickel I'm playing the spur. I know all three of those [positions]. It's not tough, because I have really great coaches that help with [learning]. There were some things I wasn't used to when I was playing up, as opposed to free where I could backpedal, come off the hash and break on the ball. But I'm getting better at opening up and sitting down on the numbers."

Despite those opportunities, Dillon's goal, as it is with any dedicated player, is to earn an every down role on defense.

"I'm on every special team except field goal. Kickoff, kickoff return, punt, and punt return, I'm on them all," Dillon said. "It's the key to getting on the field, and if they see me doing well there it's a chance to get more playing time."

That doesn't mean, though, that he views special teams as just a means to an end. Renewed emphasis from special teams coordinator Joe DeForest has seen to that.

"Special teams, we have to take that with importance. Last year we weren't that good on special teams. Coach DeForest is taking it very seriously, and as he's taking it that way, we are too. They tell us kickoff is the first play of defense and kickoff return is the first play of offense. In order to set up good field position we have to play them all well this year."

On offense and defense, repetition is one of the keys to the improvement that Dillon hopes to be a part of. Plays and coverages are run over and over again to breed automatic responses and quick reactions. However, on special teams, that's somewhat limited. Practice periods are spent with parts of each squad to work on release techniques, blocking skills and the like, but full bore kickoffs and punts, complete with live blocking and tackling on returns, are few and far between.

To counter that lack, a different sort of work is substituted.

"That's where the mental reps come in," Dillon explained. "You have to sit down and watch the film. You break it down with the coaches, watch everything and see everything. It's not always about reps [on the field]."

Dillon also sees advantages in having DeForest concentrating on special teams throughout practice, and having dedicated meetings with each squad.

"Coach DeFo is definitely on top of his game. Having him do this is just phenomenal. He knows about everything, and he can cover it all with us. I wouldn't want anybody else in charge but him."

Dillon also indicated there weren't any scheme problems with what West Virginia ran a year ago -- it was more a matter of execution and desire.

"The scheme is pretty much the same, you just have to want to do it," he said, his voice reflecting the intensity that has to be present when playing on the bomb squads. "Special teams are pretty much 'want to' -- you have to want to get out there and do it. You have to have drive, and it has to be your passion, or it isn't going to work. We just have to find 11 guys that are doing the job on every team."


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