Special Teams Don't Just Mean Kickers

Punter Todd James and placekicker Brad Cooper have been getting a good bit of attention this fall for their howitzer-like kicks, but good kicking alone won't bring the Mountaineer special teams to the level they need to be.

That's not to take anything away from either James or Cooper, who have both boomed the ball and hope to make the WVU kicking game an effective weapon. It's just that there's much more to special teams than the kickers.

Two other important areas in which WVU needs to improve are on kick returns and in coverage. Both of those areas were average last year, and must get better if the Mountaineers hope to duplicate last season's 9-3 mark.

West Virginia was 59th in the nation in kickoff return yardage last year (averaging 20.1 yards per return), and a disturbing 112th in punt returns (7.0 yards). While the Mountaineers have had a history of big play return men (Willie Drewrey, Sean Terry, etc.), no one came to the fore to give WVU a game breaking threat at either of those positions. And while Lance Frazier provided a very sure handed option in catching punts last season (that's the first rule of recieving punts), he doesn't have the open field skills of a running back or wide receiver.

Therefore, the Mountaineer coaching staff is looking for people to give the return game a boost. Adam Jones is getting a look at both return spots, while Jason Colson, Brian King and Kay Jay Harris are getting work on kickoff returns. If one or more of them can get WVU up into the 23 or 24 yard return range, and also break one or two for scores, then WVU's special teams will be on the way to the upper reaches of the national rankings.

The coverage teams were a mixed bag last year. The kickoff coverage squad was good, holding opponents to only 19.2 yards per return and not giving up any scores. The punt coverage team, howver, yielded an ugly 12.8 yards per kick, including two that came all the way back for touchdowns. That's like giving up a first down every time the ball is punted, and that number must be improved.

Part of the coverage teams' success, of course, depends on the kicker. If Brad Cooper can bomb some kickoffs through the end zone, or hang them up in the corner of the field around the goal line, then the coverage team will be more successful. And if Todd James can continue to produce the outstanding hang times and directional kicks he has shown this fall, then the punt coverage team should have a much easier time making the tackle.

Special teams coordinator Bill Stewart gave his charges a "C+" for last year's performance, which was a fair grade. But given the increased schedule challenge which the Mountaineers face this year, that mark will probably have to improve to the "B" range to keep WVU in the hunt for another big year.

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