Promising Early Results for West Virginia Return Game

The return game was a big question mark for West Virginia's football program over the offseason. Early results have been very encouraging, but there isn't a large enough sample size yet to make a definitive judgment on just how good the Mountaineers might be on runbacks in 2015.

There are two sides to looking at the early results of West Virginia's special teams retun game -- one statistical, one more subjective. While the former doesn't have enough data to make a solid judgment, the latter -- including the eyeball test -- points to a major improvement for the Mountaineers in this critical area.

On the numbers side, WVU has been good with its limited opportunities. The Mountaineers have had just one chance at a kickoff return, and it did well, with Shelton Gibson gaining 25 yards. Were that average to hold up for the team over the entire season, it would likely put WVU among the top 25% of teams in the nation - an excellent achievement. Of course, early stat numbers are skewed by schools with a long return or two, but WVU could catapult its ranking higher if it can get a big runback. Still, we need more data to figure out just how much improvement exists, but so far the results look solid -- and perhaps encouraging enough to think that the kickoff return game could be something of a weapon.

On punt returns, the numbers again are promising. First and foremost, there haven't been any muffs or fumbles. That big zero in those categories was priority one in the offeseason. Like Shelton on kickoff returns, K.J. Dillon and Gary Jennings have done well on their chances, with the safety gathering in two boots and returning them for 21 yards, while the freshman wide receiver has 15 yards to show for his one catch. Maintaing the current 12 yards per return average would again be a great result, and would easily put West Virginia in the top third of the nation, if not higher.

Admittedly, these numbers don't make up a valid statistical sample, so there's also the "look and feel" of the return game to be considered. And again, it looks pretty good. On the kickoff return, Gibson hit the return upfield quickly, and while a big hole didn't develop, he chose a good lane and seemed to get about as much yardage as was there. And on punt returns, things looked even better.

First, there haven't been any risky or shaky catch attempts. Both Dillon and Jennings have been demonstrative in getting teammates away from the ball when they decided not to field it, and neither has needlessly hung out in the area of the bounding ball when it hits the ground. While there was one punt in the first game that probably should have been fair caught, for the most part the judgements have been good.

Second, and even more encouragingly, the three punts that have been returned have yielded solid yardage. Both Dillon and Jennings have made a defender miss, which allowed extra yards and better field position as a result.

As noted, every item in the return game isn't top shelf just yet. Getting to the ball and making a fair catch can be critical in a close contest, and can provide hidden yardage that isn't readily evident in the stats. It's a loss prevention factor, as it keeps opponents from gaining ground with bouncing punts that put WVU's offense further away from the end zone. Again, the dividing line there is a tough one -- if a returner doesn't think he can get to the ball, then he has to clear out -- but the better returners read the ball early and get to it to prevent such occurrences.Blocking on returns was noted by the coaches as an area needing more improvement, but again, the yardage on those that did get run back was good.

Building on these encouraging results is the next step for the Mountaineers, and improving consistency could switch the entire return game from the liability it was in 2014 to a respectable part of the program.


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