Great Expectations

It’s the least noticed group on an unheralded team, these West Virginia specialists. But with two entrenched kickers and arguably the top long snapper in the Big 12, the Mountaineers appear steady and solid, the first two things coaches desire in special teams.

Placekicker Josh Lambert, off a freshman season in which he converted 17 of 23 field goals and led the team in points with 86, returns fully healthy after battling muscle fatigue and stress toward the latter portions of last season. Punter Nick O’Toole, who averaged 44.1 yards per punt as WVU led the conference in net average, has put a stranglehold on the position, and seems to have shored up some consistency issues that plagued him last year. Snapper John DePalma and holder Michael Molinari might make up the finest tandem in the league, and give the Mountaineers exceptional stability in key areas. And with Molinari thus far expected to handle kickoff duties, and back-up the punting and placekicking slots, West Virginia has some reasonable depth.

Through the first few days of drills, Lambert hit every placekick, according to Associate Head Coach and Special Teams Coordinator Joe DeForest. The sophomore has added more than 10 pounds to his 5-11 frame, and has topped out at 216 pounds. DeForest would like Lambert at about 210, but the weight fits his frame so well that it isn’t a concern. Lambert, after overusing his leg last year, has gained a greater understanding of how to approach the season-long grind.

“He was hurt last year, had a groin and a flexor muscle pulled,” DeForest said. “He kicked about 75 percent. What I’ve tried to do this camp is pair down his kicking. He loves to kick, to warm up, but it tears his body down. The first few days of practice, he’s hitting good balls. He hit a 60-yarder. His leg strength is the best it’s ever been. That comes with strength and conditioning and rest. He’s perfect so far. Of the (six) field goals he missed last year, four of them were over 50 yards. If we can get to 50 percent over 50 yards, that’s really good. He needs to be about 85 percent from 45 to 50, and 100 percent from there on in. He’s worked on it. And don’t forget, last year he was a freshman.”

Still, even with the injury, Lambert made 13 of his final 15 attempts, including a run of 10 straight in a stretch of games against Oklahoma State, Texas Tech, Kansas State, TCU and Texas. He finished 13th nationally in field goals made per game and was the Big 12 Special Teams Player of the Week after hitting the game winner in overtime against TCU, a contest in which he converted all three of his field goals, the longest 42 yards, along with three extra points. DeForest, who has mentored players like 2010 Lou Groza award winner Dan Bailey and 2011 semifinalist Quinn Sharp, along with 2008 Ray Guy winner Matt Fodge, says that Lambert has the talent and mental drive to reach that level.

“I’ve had an opportunity to coach a Lou Groza and a Ray Guy award winner, and Josh has a chance, if he continues to progress like he is, to be as good as the guys I have coached at that level,” he said. “Dan Bailey, who kicks for the (NFL’s Dallas) Cowboys, he can be that level. He’s a flatliner. I call them flatliners. He loves to bench press. He bench presses 375 pounds. That’s the kind of mindset he has. He’s bigger. He weighed in around 216. His body mass is good. His lean body mass got better over the summer. If he keeps progressing, he can be very good.”

O’Toole, who tweaked an ankle just prior to fall camp, is back near 100 percent and has showcased solid distance and hang time in the brief media sessions. The senior, a second-team All-Big 12 pick last year by the Coaches, the AP and Phil Steele, was second in the league, and 15th nationally, in punt average. His 26 punts of 50 yards or more were the most since consensus first team All American Todd Sauerbrun had 33 in 1994. Add in DePalma, who DeForest calls the best snapper in the league, and Molinari, who Lambert says is incredibly consistent and reliable, and the Mountaineers appear set at the key slots.

There are questions, of course. What players fill in the surrounding slots, especially along a line that did allow some penetration, along with two blocked kicks, last season. Punt return also remains a work in progress, with the Mountaineers needing to find significantly better judgment and explosiveness. But the core remains as good as any other in the Big 12, with perhaps the biggest unknown being how West Virginia will fare against high-level live competition the in the opener against Alabama.

“You never really see special teams live,” DeForest said. “You have scout team guys running down on kickoff. You don’t have good on good, like you do with offense and defense (in fall camp) because you have an offensive and defensive player on the first team on kickoff return, then you have scouts on the kickoff (for example). That’s always a concern with tackling.

“Nowadays, every single program in the country, at the high school level, the college level, the NFL, If you play football, you’re training year round. That’s why their bodies are conditioned the way they are now. The collisions are so much more violent. When I played 30-some years ago, we hit all day. There was no such thing as a non-contact practice, or a thud practice. Every day you went live. Now, you can’t do it anymore. I agree you can’t do it all the time for the safety of the kids. It’s a prolonged beating on their body. But the tackling is sloppy because of the restrictions they put on it.”

Which is scary, considering special teams, as many coaches have preached, are the only plays that routinely change the score, or field position 35-plus yards. The Mountaineers obviously aren’t facing any issues that won’t plague every other team in the nation in terms of preparing for live action against top shelf talent. And, with the specialists themselves anchored into their assignments, and somewhat proven, WVU might be in a better position than most. But it’ll be worth noting which team best executes the fundamentals while tackling in space over the first quarter-plus on Aug. 30.

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