In every practice, West Virginia, like most college teams in the nation, devotes several periods to special teams. All aspects are worked, from kicking to returns to coverage. Items are broken down into base parts, from seemingly simple tasks such as catching the ball to coverage team releases. There is even full unit work, although absent very much full-on contact work. Even with all that practice, however, there might be more uncertainty around return and coverage teams than any other aspect of football.
While it's true that observers never really know how an individual or team is going to perform in a game, practice usually gives a pretty good indication. An offense that can't run the ball on the practice grid isn't likely to morph into the Seattle Seahawk ground attack on Saturday. A player that struggles in man-to-man in one-on-ones or skeleton isn't going to become the next Deion Sanders. Sure, there are a handful of guys that improve when the lights come on, and there are some unpleasant surprises that play out in the reverse direction, but by and large coaches have a pretty good idea of what will work and who can play based on practice performance.
Except, that is, on special teams, and specifically in the coverage and return games. Whether it's the lack of live reps (the reduced practice contact limits and emphasis on player safety has them dwindling) or the dynamic of two groups going against each other that know what's coming, the degree of uncertainty remains high.
"You really don't know," special teams coach Mark Scott, who came on board West Virginia's coaching staff in the spring, said. "We try to put them in situations that are like the game, but you just can't afford to go full out too much."
Even practicing the full 11 on 11 might not give each team a full look against the best the opposing squad has to offer. One or more players might be on both the first team kick or return squad (although efforts are made to limit that), and thus backups will be thrust into the practice action right off the bat. Each team, cover and return, wants to work on its own techniques and execution, which can hinder the value of those reps to the other side. For example, the kickoff team might work on a pooch kick, that, while needing attention, doesn't provide much for the return squad other than the decision-making of the return man. That's still valuable, but it's not a rep that helps the blockers on the return a great deal.
Finally, there's the matter of replicating a game. Even on the few live return reps, it's impossible to duplicate the atmosphere of the game. Crowd noise is often blared from the speakers, but that's a minimal substitute for the adrenaline-pumping, heart-pounding reality of catching a punt with defenders intent on making a highlight reel hit bearing down, or keeping your head to stay in your coverage lane while chasing a fleet return specialist with more moves than Tavon Austin. It is that uncertainty, especially on the return side, that keeps coaches like Scott on edge.
"We have some explosive guys on in the return game that if we are disciplined and can do our jobs up front, we can create some things," he observed, noting that improvement in West Virginia's return game has to be an across-the-board effort. Certainly, just securing the ball and making good judgments while it is in the air is paramout, and in fact, it is something that Scott is trying to emphasize.
"They don't have to be the hero," he said, echoing a statement that apllies to anyone who goes too far in trying to make a big play. "Just catch the ball and get some yards."
The recent standard-bearer at WVU for that would be Lance Frazier, who was West Virginia's primary punt return man from 2001-03. While many Mountaineer fans would naturally select Tavon Austin as the ideal candidate to return kicks, his adventures in judging the ball in the air and catching it cleanly did offset some of his electric returns when he was able to snare the ball. In any event, Frazier was the epitome of what Scott is referring to. He had 65 punt returns that covered 664 yards in his career. While he had just one TD in his time in a Mountaineer uniform, it's important to note that he averaged more than ten yards per return. That's a first down before the offense even takes a snap, and the kind of hidden yardage that is so vital in many games.
Scott believes that WVU has identified its return man in K.J. Dillon who certainly has the confidence and flair to excel. However, he, like every West Virginia fan, will be anxiously awaiting the first proof of concept -- that first time when a Georgia Southern punt climbs in the evening sky over Mountaineer Field on the evening of Saturday, Sept. 5. Only then will the answers be fully known.