In our spring previews, we focused on the players. In this fall run-up series, we'll go with some different angles on how newcomers and coaches will fit into the picture with the veterans and players who were on campus for the spring semester, and what has to happen for each group to excel. Our final pre-camp look zooms in on special teams.
NEWCOMERS SINCE SPRING
Scholarship kicker Jonn Young arrived after having to wait for his high school graduation in late June, and he could challenge for either the punting or placekicking jobs. He excelled at summer kicking camps over his high school career, and pushed his way into the national spotlight with his performances. An injury kept him out of a good bit of his senior season, but he should be ready to go in his freshman season.
WVU also added walk-ons Evan Staley and Evan Stire to the program. Both of the in-state freshmen will get the chance to work and develop, but neither is likely to challenge for playing time this year. Long snapper Kyle Poland also came on board and will join the derby to replace the departed John DePalma. The Mountaineers also added several candidates for kick return work, including Steven Smothers.
Special teams coach Mark Scott had enough on his plate following the 2015 season. With DePalma and punter Nick O'Toole gone, he had to find a punter, kickoff specialist, holder and snapper. Then came the three-game suspension of placekicker Josh Lambert, giving Scott something else to worry about. When the Mountaineers take the field in September, they will do so a new starter at every primary special teams spot.
The challenge for a special teams coach is, in many ways, unique. There's not one set of techniques that work with every punter and kicker, so he has to learn the keys for each performer so he can help when things go awry. He also has to do so without burning out legs -- something that plagued Lambert, for instance, earlier in his career. Scott needs to manage workloads while also figuring out his new arrivals. He has to see if anyone can challenge Mike Molina for the starting kicker spot while Lambert is out. He has to identify a kickoff man, and also manage the competition between Young and Billy Kinney, who figure to battle for the punting job. He must develop synergy between holders (Kinney is the starter at this point) and the placekickers. And in his spare time, he needs to build a roster of returners. That's as diverse a set of challenges as there is on the field, but it's also, as Mountaineer fans have seen, one of the most important.
PATH TO EXCELLENCE
Backups a year ago, most of West Virginia's specialists must show improvement this year. Even Lambert, whose achievements are undeniable, will be looking to be more consistent in 2016. Kinney, who has shown the ability to place the ball well with acceptable hangtime, must execute on every kick. He'll also need to work with two different kickers to make sure he's ready to accomdate the preferences of both. The Mountaineers must also find a kickoff specialist who can keep opponents pinned deep, as there doesn't appear to be anyone who will be able to boom the ball into the end zone time and again. And can any of the long snappers, including returnee Nick Meadows and transfer R.C. Brunstetter, approach the consistency of DePalma?
More importantly, the team aspect of special teams figures strongly here. To help its reconstructed defense, West Virginia's punt and kickoff coverage teams have to be good. The Mountaineers can't afford to give up field position when it boots the ball away, so the search is also on for players who are good in open space, can avoid or get off blocks and make tackles. There are a ton of potential candidates in the form of new and rising faces at linebacker and in the defensive secondary, but special teams skills aren't ones that are inherent in every backer or safety. Identifying a sold group, and finding some chemistry there, is just as important as that between wide receivers and quarterbacks, or between members of the offensive line.
All of this makes for a very difficult path to the top for special teams, especially early in the year. Molina must be solid in September, the cover teams must jell, and a return man must emerge who is a danger to break a big return. That's a lot of holes to fill.
It's easy, once a situation is past, to dismiss it, or at least shove it to the back of the mind. That's likely the case with Lambert's absence in September, but it shouldn't be. One or two of those games could easily come down to special teams, and as noted, there are a ton of issues to be addressed in fall camp. That's not to say that Molina or one of the other kickers won't be up to the challenge. Molina showed up well for the most part during the spring. He should be reliable. But he doesn't have the distance that Lambert can generate, and he's never been in a make-it-or-lose situation, as Lambert has been. His reactions could be key as West Virginia searches for a 3-0 start.
In addition to all of the other items discussed, kick return duties also appear wide open. WVU listed just one player at each spot (Gary Jennings on punts and Shelton Gibson on kickoffs) but there's room for more. Given the Mountaineers' issues fielding punts over previous seasons, it needs to have two players ready to go there. (That also provides the option of putting two returners on the field in certain situations. Development of another kickoff return man is also key, as it would not allow opponents to boot it away from Gibson.It would also help meet head coach Dana Holgorsen stated goal of getting WVU into the 40-points per game range.
There's almost nothing settled on this unit, other than the fact that Lambert will reclaim his starting role once the Big 12 Conference season commences. Kinney has the edge at punter and holder for now, and Molina the kickoff duties, but all of those will be in play during the fall. The resolutions, and the performance of this group, will have an outsized effect on WVU's 2016 fortunes.
Other Fall Outlook Previews
|Offensive Line||Wide Receivers||Running Backs||Tight Ends and Fullbacks||Quarterbacks|