After three weeks of clean punt return play, West Virginia Mountaineers committed two significant mistakes against Oklahoma. First K.J. Dillon, then Gary Jennings, retreated to catch punts inside their own ten. The resulting poor field position pinned down two Mountaineer drives and contributed to some of the worst starting positions this side of the #1 gate at the Kentucky Derby.
The cardinal rule of not retreating would seem to have been in play here, but in reality it wasn't. On both of the returns, Dillon and Jennings were actually lined up between the 15 and the 20 – the correct spot based on the location of Oklahoma's punt. However, the Sooners got off two booming kicks, which forced them to retreat.
“I just think they got caught up in the moment and weren’t aware of where they were on the field,” WVU assistant coach Mark Scott said. “We’ve stressed it time and time again: Know where you are on the field. In a pooch situation, it’s a lot easier – line up on the ten and don’t back up. The punter from Oklahoma had two great kicks, we were on about the 15-18 yard line, and they just weren’t aware of where they were on the field backing up. We made some poor decisions and it cost us field position.”
That field awareness isn't something that develops quickly or easily. A return man might know where he started, but can he count steps while he's tracking a twisting, turning boot and concentrating on catching it cleanly? There are players that can do it naturally, and some learn over time, but WVU's lack of experience at the position hurts it – even though both have performed those duties in high school.
At that level, it's a lot different. Kicks are lower, coverage isn't as good, and punt returners rarely have defenders in their face when making catches. They also rarely have to retreat to run down the ball – thus, they haven't had a great deal of experience in doing so. And on the high school level, coaches want to return every punt, especially if they have a speedy or shifty guy back there who can thrive in the open field. Put all that together, and there are clearly reasons, if not excuses, for what happened in Norman.
“It’s a whole lot different when you aren’t on the ten, especially with guys that don’t have a whole lot of experience,” Scott confirmed. “We came in on Sunday, showed the film, reemphasized it and had some heavy emphasis on Sunday with pooch kicks, with where they are on the field and on communication on kickoff return. You have to be loud and clear. We got a ton of reps for that on Sunday and will get more [this week]”.
Also playing into the mix is Dillon's presence on defense. Typically, he will have just completed a third down play, full of emotion, which resulted in a stop for the Mountaineers. Now he has to calm himself, make dispassionate decisions, and catch the ball – all in a turnaround of about 30 seconds. It's not that it can't be done, but it takes work and reps to do so.
To help in that regard, and to keep the returners on track when things do go bad, Scott and the coaches value calmness as a key.
“You can’t panic, because if you show that as a coach the kids are going to feel it.,” he said. “You have to be calm, you have to make it a teachable moment. You have to calm them down, especially on Saturday. Our guys were all kinds of fired up, so maybe you can pull a guy out and let him [watch] . We have to teach it more than fly off the handle. “