WVU Spring Football Outlook: Special Teams

The examination of special teams often begins and ends with the placekicker and punter, but we go beyond that with a look at all aspects of the “third unit” which so often impacts the outcome of games.

CURRENT ROSTER

At punter, senior Nick O'Toole heads a cast that includes redshirt freshman Billy Kinney and, in an emergency, starting placekicker Josh Lambert. Supporting the redshirt sophomore in his primary duties on field goals and extra points are redshirt sophomores Scott Levine and Mike Molina, with Kinney also getting some work. The holder is O'Toole, while senior John DePalma will be a four-year starter as the long snapper, with redshirt sophomore Nick Meadows the backup and heir apparent.

A number of candidates are vying for punt and kickoff return duties. Vernon Davis and Jordan Thompson head a cast of punt returners that includes Jacky Marcellus and Lamar Parker, while kickoff return has returnees such as Shelton Gibson, Wendell Smallwood and Daryl Worley, who is out this spring after undergoing shoulder surgery.


RETURNING PRODUCTIVITY

O'Toole, Lambert and DePalma are entrenched as starters, with the latter having one of the best resumes in West Virginia history on his curriculum vitae. The Mountaineer long snapper “has never had a bad snap” according to head coach Dana Holgorsen, and he's an unseen foundation to WVU's kicking game. O'Toole and Lambert are all-league quality booters, and while each may be nitpicked a bit, they likewise are anchors for West Virginia's kicking game.

O'Toole averaged 41.8 yards per kick in 2014, and 45 of his 57 boots were either fair caught or placed inside the 20. While his averages weren't the equal of his sophomore numbers, not all of that was his fault, as coverage ability also contributes to the net punting figure, which dropped to 37 yards per attempt. Lambert was 30-39 on field goals, including two long clutch game-winners, and missed just one inside of 40 yards. He did have two blocked, so getting the ball up (and getting improved protection, which was a factor in at least one of the rejections) are goals for this year.

Gibson is the top returnee in the kickoff runback department, having averaged 19.2 yards on 13 tries a year ago. Rushel Shell, K.J. Myers, Jordan Thompson and Wendell Smallwood combined for six returns a year ago, so there is clearly a need for development in this play phase. Thompson and Davis combined for 19 returns in 2014, but gained a total of just 70 yards on those chances.


CONCERNS AND QUESTIONS

Punt return easily heads this list, but a few other issues are also on the problem sheet. West Virginia would likely settle for a couple of guys that can judge the ball in the air, make good decisions and average five yards per return. The Mountaineers must close the gulf in return yardage from a year ago, when they averaged just three yards per runback against opponents 13.6. Take away Jarrod Harper's 18 credited yards for his punt block and recovery against Maryland, and West Virginia had just 60 yards on punt returns in 2014. That's not all on the return guys either, as blocking on punt returns was well below par.

Punt coverage is a somewhat hidden, but still important factor. While O'Toole did a good job at preventing runbacks for the most part, foes' 17 chances yielded 232 yards, including three touchdown returns. West Virginia didn't do a great job of fanning the field or keeping containment on some punts, and as a result was also faced with a deficit in net punting. This, along with a bit better directional control from O'Toole, would help in the hidden yardage battle that often has great impact on field position. Add in the kickoff coverage team, which also gave up a score, and it's clear that preventing the big play is a major issue to be addressed.

Who will handle kickoffs? The departed Mike Molinari did a solid job last year, but his departure opens up a new competition. Kinney appears to be one candidate, and he or another young kicker will get every chance to win the job, as Holgorsen and special teams coordinator Joe DeForest prefer that each of the three kicking jobs be held down by different players, so as to avoid overuse. If Kinney doesn't win the job, “wide-open” would just be the starting description of the competition to come.


SPRING GOALS

1) Improve punt direction and coverage. O'Toole has set high goals for himself, and if he can get just a bit better on placement, he can help the punt coverage team pin opposing returners to the sideline and lessen the chance of big plays.

2) Identify the kickoff man. Realistically, this might not be settled this spring, as a summer of work and additional strength training might bring someone back in the fall with increased booting ability. Preferably, the winner will not bear the last name O'Toole or Lambert.

3) Improve consistency in the return games. It was either boom or bust ion kickoff returns in 2014. Mario Alford had two runbacks for scores, but past those WVU didn't move the needle (or push the sticks up the field) much on kickoff returns. That has to get better, as an improvement in drive starting position would help an offense looking to find its footing this season. As for punt returns, a mastery of getting to the ball and securing it would be a big improvement. In both return games, blocking also needs to improve. Far too many opposing coverage teams got free runs downfield a year ago.


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