Special Teams Play? Just 'Average'

One overlooked aspect of the 42-10 season-opening win over Marshall was a very average special teams performance by West Virginia. Apparently average, however, is in the eye of the beholder.

Punter Scott Kozlowski felt very good about his 38-yard punting average, especially after speaking with head coach Rich Rodriguez after the game. None of them were returned, so the sophomore's boots were all net yardage. Special teams coach Bill Stewart described WVU's overall performance as average, noting that Kozlowski "did ok for the first outing. I was very pleased about the net punting average. I thought the coverage was great. My men Charles Pugh, Ovid Goulbourne, Tim Lindsey, those guys made tackles. They covered very well."

It's well-known that the transition from prep punting to performing on a collegiate level is more difficult than that of place kicking. Kozlowski, to his credit, got the punts off in plenty of time with an approximately 3.8 second hang time. While neither of the West Palm Beach native's 42-yard average and 4.2-second hang time goals were met, one could argue that they were a bit high for a first game.

"I didn't do as well as I thought I could do, but I overcame the fear of not doing what I was afraid I would do, which is shank one," Kozlowski said. "After the game I talked to Rodriguez and he said that I had the jitters and that I got past it. He said my mechanics were better, so I felt good about it. As many (stars) as I had after my name coming out of high school, everybody expected me to boom them all over the place. But once you don't play for a year, you lose focus on the speed of the game. I played in 6A in high school, which is very big, hard class but their speed could not compare to Marshall. I didn't know what to expect, so that first punt was hard for me."

The special teams' staff actually gave Kozlowski the option of punting however he wanted. He hasn't yet mastered the rugby kick as well as graduated punter Phil Brady, and so chose to kick out of a traditional style to the right. The wind took the kick to the middle of the field, and Lindsey, the long snapper, assisted on the tackle, a rarity for a lineman, especially a snapper.

"It was ironic because I told Tim before the game, he said his favorite thing to do is run down and make the tackle as soon as the guy touches it," Kozlowski said. "I told him I would get him one (tackle) this season sometime. I didn't know what game or when, but he got it the first punt. Really, I was just trying to stay warm. I didn't think we would even punt at one point. I am glad to get past the first game."

The lone issue with the unit was a slight breakdown in the protection on the final punt. Tight end Mike Villigrana, who is a personal protector (one of the three up-men who stand closest to the kicker, forming a final wall), got blindsided by a MU player and bounced into Kozlowski.

"I fell backwards because I was standing on one leg," Kozlowski said. "I laid there because I thought it was one of the Marshall guys, trying to draw a penalty. But it was Mike Villigrana, who came up behind me afterward and we watched the reply. He got nailed. But I never worry about anybody coming through. If you have a line with Mike Villigrana, Owen Schmitt and Marc Magro, you never worry about people getting through. I trust them a lot. They are the three I trust the most other than my long snapper, who is always right on."

West Virginia's return game was one block away from breaking a big gain on one kickoff return. It averaged 24.5 yards per run back on the kickoff, with cornerback Antonio Lewis handling both returns. Its punt return average was 5.0, returned by corner Vaughn Rivers, but much of that stemmed from poor opposing punts. The coverage, as noted, was fine.

But WVU had multiple breakdowns in the place kicking game. It jumped offsides on one point after with a hint of a flinch along the line, and it had a field goal try late in the first half blocked, the first one blocked against the Mountaineers since the 2004 Syracuse game. The snap, hold (by Travis McClintic) and kick (Pat McAfee) were all fine.

"One guy did not do what he is supposed to do on both," Stewart said. "One guy. That guy was removed. Do what we tell you, when we tell you, why we tell you. I have been doing this 34 years. If you don't do what we tell you, you get a block and that could turn the whole game around. It won't happen again."

Lindsey snapped the ball and executed his block before looking up. He usually sees the ball above his head by then, and the senior was puzzled why it was not yet off because he did not hear the trademark ‘Thump!' of a block.

"They brought three guys on that right side of the line," Lindsey said. "There is a certain technique that you have to apply. You get crushed in that spot with that rush, and you have to take two guys. But that's the job. It was a simple mistake, easily corrected, but it did cause the block. At practice he got it corrected. Operation-wise, with the snap, hold and the kick, it was right on target. But when someone comes in as fast as that guy did, I can't get it there fast enough."

Lindsey had another very good performance snapping, and the second-year starter at the spot has honed the ability to locate his snaps to where the punter can begin his rollout as the ball is laving Lindsey's hands instead of waiting for the straight-on snap. It allows for better protection and faster execution. The Bridgeport native's biggest problem, in fact, was that he ran too well. He made a tackle on special teams where he got too deep into the punt protection wall on the tackle he made. Stewart would prefer Lindsey to hold up and allow the bullets – the initial skill players downfield – to dictate where the player goes, then react when the returner runs toward him.

"We want that guy to say ‘Oh, I can't go that way. I have bullets over there. So I have to go this way'," Stewart said. "And Tim is there to close on him. He has a role. We don't want him running down there top heavy. He is 265 to 270 pounds. He is not a bullet. He's a lineman. He points the ball. Where it points to, he goes."

West Virginia will get one more week to better its game against what should be less-talented players before it hosts rival Maryland on Thurs., Sept. 14. The Terrapins are traditionally a very good special teams squad, and a fumble on a kickoff in WVU's 31-19 win there last year made the game closer at the end than it should have been.

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