For Maryland, the return game is the most dangerous. Stefon Diggs and William Likely give the Terrapins a homerun threat in the kickoff and punt return games, respectively. Diggs, a wideout, returned a kick 59 yards in the opener against James Madison, and has netted 124 yards on three returns to bring his per-game total yard average to a team-best 113.5 – and his per return average to a whopping 41.3 yards. Likely, a defensive back, is the lone defensive starter who is a sophomore or younger. The second-year player averaged 12.8 yards per return in 2013 to earn Special Teams Player of the Year honors for UM. This season, Likely has returned five punts for an average of 19.2 yards per return, with a long of 46.
The Terps also have a very solid placekicker in Brad Craddock, named to the Lou Groza Award watch list. Craddock made a 49- and 23-yarder in the first two games, and has put eight of his 14 kickoffs into the end zone. Punter Nathan Renfro doesn’t have the leg of West Virginia’s Nick O’Toole, but has held an average of 39.5 yards per punt, with five punts of 50-plus yards and five dropped inside the red zone.
And while WVU’s special teams were perhaps the unit least to blame in last season’s 37-0 loss in Baltimore, the “third side of the ball,” as head coach Dana Holgorsen calls it, didn’t make any plays to turn field position, either, save O’Toole’s quite good 46.1 yards per punt. O’Toole, averaging 43.4 yards this season, could be a key in giving the Mountaineers just a touch of an edge if there are a series of punts exchanged.
“It was ugly. They beat is in every phase and they whupped us in special teams,” associate head coach and special teams coordinator Joe DeForest said. “It’s the biggest challenge of the year so far. They are very talented on special teams. They have great returners in Diggs and Lightly. They are talented. I’m looking forward to it. I hope our kids are as well. This’ll dictate a lot of field position. They had the ball a lot inside the 30 last year, so we want to be better for that.”
West Virginia can counter the Maryland return game with continued exceptional coverage on the vast majority of punts and field goals, and a dash of big plays from Mario Alford and, perhapos, Jordan Thompson. Thompson had a career-long 30-yard punt return against Towson, an Alford still ranks first in the Big 12 and second nationally in average kickoff return yards (48.3) after his 100-yard return for a touchdown against Alabama. He did not get a kickoff return touch against Towson, which kicked off just twice, once to begin the game and once after WVU’s safety pushed the lead to 40-0. WVU kicked off nine times for an average of 60.8 yards – not bad, but a far cry Michael Molinari’s 64.7-yard average against Alabama when he putt eh ball into the end zone several times.
“Our kicks weren’t very good on kickoff, but their average starting field position, which is what’s important to me, was the 25-yard line,” DeForest said of his coverage unit. “They popped one to the 38 when we had a kid that had contain and lost it. The other ones, if you can keep them to the 25, that’s a touchback, so you have to think of it in those terms. We don’t have a kicker who can kick it through the end zone every time, so we have to cover every kick and when you have to cover eight, nine kicks you are going to have some mistakes. One other time, they had a great plan and executed it and we didn’t get off blocks. I was disappointed in maybe two of the nine kicks.
“Kicking off, believe it or not, takes a lot out of you because it’s an explosive play. Mike got worn down, believe it or not, after nine kicks. I know it sounds silly, but that is an explosive play and it takes a lot on your plat leg and then you hurdle through. He wasn’t hurdling through, and those are things that he’s working on this week.”
WVU also had what it – and most others – thought was as sound a placekicker as possible in Josh Lambert. The second-year starter hasn’t been poor, but he hasn’t been exceptional, either. Lambert has hit on placekicks of 42, 41, 20 and 19 yards while missing from 47 and 34 yards against Alabama and Towson, respectively. The 47-yarder against the Tide was tipped after the Alabama front got good push against WVU’s line, resulting in an attempt that fell short and wide right, while the sophomore simply hooked the 34-yarder against Towson. Lambert raised his arms to signal he believed the kick was good, but the officials ruled otherwise.
“He’s hitting the ball really good,’ DeForest said. “I’d like him to be more consistent, but I don’t think it’s anything to worry about right now. I don’t even bring it up, because it gets in his head and then it becomes an issue. You know how they are.”
They being the enigma that is the personality of kickers. Of now, the misfires aren’t of much concern, because it’s difficult to discern if the problem will persist. And a four of six conversion rate isn’t the worst percentage seen at West Virginia. But much more was expected of Lambert this season, and the next two games will begin to divulge whether the early misses were cues to a larger issue or simply a brief proverbial bump in the road.
“The guys have gotten great experience,” DeForest said. “I threw some guys in there who hadn’t played much so they could get that experience (against Towson). Maryland, they’ve got some great returners in Diggs and Lively. It’ll be a big challenge.”