Kickoff, Return Team Spots Still Up For Grabs

With returning starters at punter and placekicker, the battle for specialist playing time at West Virginia might be perceived as already decided. But while Nick O'Toole and Josh Lambert will certainly be the number ones at those positions this fall, there is still another spot that is up for grabs.

That spot, the unglamorous kickoff specialist, is still an open competition as spring practice winds down. As of now, O'Toole. Lambert and Michael Molina are all putting in bids for the job. A survey of each in the open practice sessions to date shows what appears to be a very close battle for positioning. All are able to boot the ball into the end zone, and most full-on attempts get to the five-yard-line or better. Height on the kicks vary at times, but there's not a lot at this point to separate the group.

If the battle remains that close, the default nod might go to Molina, with an eye toward avoiding wear on the other two, who each have their own specialties to concentrate on. That's the path the Mountaineers took last year, as Mike Molinari handled all 84 kickoffs in 2014. He performed pretty well, booting 31 for touchbacks and averaging a net 39.2 yards (kickoff distance – return) which was two yards better than WVU foes.

Getting the ball into the end zone is the first priority, of course, but height and placement also figure in. Kickers who can drop the ball between the numbers and the sideline, or get more height without sacrificing distance, are obviously valued. O'Toole appears to have a bit of an edge in the hang time department, but again, that's based on pre-practice work. As is often the case, performance in live scrimmage sessions can differ, not to mention showings in actual games. Still, special teams assistant Joe DeForest seems to be pleased with the results so far, and does have a preferred winner of the battle.

“It's still going to be a competition,” he said of the current trio. “All three of them are going to get an opportunity. They'll battle for that. Mike is doing a good job. He's gotten stronger and his leg speed has gotten a lot better. I want Mike to win it, but I'm going to put the best guy out there.”

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DeForest also is working with identifying players for the kick coverage teams. Skills for those units are all based on playing in space, and being able to either zero in on blocks or avoid them while running 50 or more yards downfield. With few live action kicks to give aspirants a shot at the jobs, DeForest utilizes a drill that has employed for more than two decades. It involves one returner against one coverage man and two blockers. The blockers, who are lined up some 20 yards from each other, wheel into the return lane to oppose the coverage man, who must avoid or shed the blocks and get to the returner. Cones are set up to indicate the return lane, so the cover man only patrols the normal width he would on a regular kick. In a way, it's like Oklahoma drills for special teams.

“It's a combination,” DeForest said. “I have done this drill for about 20 years. You are working your kickoff return team to drop, catch and steer, and then your cover guy on how to avoid and get downfield. It doesn't take the place of covering a kick for real, but it's a fun drill. It's my favorite drill to do.”

Like many other practice sessions, DeForest will review video of these special teams workouts to identify likely candidates for the return and coverage teams, but just as with the kickoff candidates, final decisions will likely wait until fall camp.

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