Overhauled: Special Teams

Rules changes have put a premium on special teams speed and kicking strength. West Virginia has its weapons stockpiled.

WVU might welcome the NCAA's new kickoff setup – the ball is now placed at the 30-yard line instead of the 35 – more than any other Big East team. The Mountaineers have arguably the strongest kicker and return units, and with Darius Reynaud and an infusion of skill talent in Jock Sanders, Noel Devine and Ellis Lankster, the additional spacing could allow the foursome to thrive in a revamped scheme.

Special teams coordinator and associate head coach Bill Stewart says the yard line change will force teams to sacrifice size and blocking ability for speed. And the alignments, traditionally in a 5-2-2-2 set, could be tweaked to a 5-3-3 or even a 6-3-2, which allows for better coverage at the 10-15 yard lines against weaker kickers.

The switch will not be as much of a change for West Virginia's coverage units. Place kicker Pat McAfee put 66 percent of his kickoffs into the end zone last season; 50 percent overall were unreturnable, either out of the playing area or deep enough into the end zone where opponents took a knee. If the conditions are favorable, McAfee will simply boom away again.

"You gotta understand how blessed we are to have Pat McAfee," Stewart said. "Backing it up five yards, for some guys that is a mind psyche. To Pat McAfee, that's a challenge. He likes that. He still has a chance to put the ball in the end zone."

Stewart admitted he was an "old dog" once, not wanting to exchange size for speed in the lineup. After Boston College ran two punts back to upset West Virginia in its 2004 home finale' and help cost it an outright Big East championship, he said he was willing to try anything. That ushered in the spread punt, more frequent usage of the sky kick and the placing of faster players on special teams, all of which should add to the rule change to help the Mountaineers.

"We have good guys that can run," Stewart said. "Since that young speed has come to town, we have been working more on kickoff return than we ever have. We have some guys that can return that ball."

Reynaud statistically was the Big East's second-best kickoff returner, as only Pitt's Lowell Robinson, with a 27.9 return average, topped Reynaud's 27.1. He scored one touchdown, that coming just before the half on a 96-yard runback against Maryland. Add in the speed and field vision of Sanders, a scatback-type runner with a low center of gravity and a great burst, and Devine, a Scout.com five-star tailback with 4.35 speed and an uncanny knack for making people miss, and the Mountaineers have the ability to change a game with their kickoff teams. Lankster, a first team junior college All-American as a kick returner at Jones Co. (Miss.), is working with both the punt and kickoff return squads as well.

"We want to send a message if we can with McAfee's leg and our return men," Stewart said. "But that said: We have a night game. The air is heavy at Maryland on a Thursday night near the coast. We have to know that stuff, take all that into consideration. Can (McAfee) get it out of there? Can we sky kick? Should we squib? It's all part of the equation. We have to know the wind, the rain, the conditions. Pat does have such a terrific leg that we will still sky kick. That's one of our best weapons."

The sky kick allows WVU to showcase its exceptional speed and ability to get to the football, an asset that should only be bettered by a series of athletic recruiting classes and a strength and conditioning program that has churned out bigger, faster players each season. The Mountaineers led the Big East in kickoff coverage yardage last year with an average of 17.1, more than a full yard better than any other team. It was second in kickoff return yardage at 23.8, good for 12th in the nation; Pitt led the league at 24.1 ypr.

There are other strategic and schematic changes to consider. No longer will West Virginia always opt to take the ball at the 35-yard-line after an illegal procedure penalty via an out-of-bounds kickoff. Instead, with knowledge gained through film study, the coaching staff could choose to back an opposing kicker up to his team's 25-yard line and kick again.

"Then maybe you got the ball at the 40 or midfield," head coach Rich Rodriguez said. "There are a lot more opportunities."

Stewart promises to challenge opposing players, something that should better West Virginia's two special teams touchdowns and its 1,426 total yards on 76 returns (50 KO, 26 punt).

"We will see what kind of leg the Western Michigan guy has," Stewart said. "And Marshall and Maryland and everyone after. We will look and see – what did that kicker do in the last two, three, four, five games? Do we back it up to the 25, or do we take it on the 35? With our return guys, if the kid can't hit it we may put him back on the 25. Now we catch the ball, we may be at midfield."

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NOTES: The rules changes, staff turnover and a downturn in some areas of special teams – like punt and punt return, where WVU ranked fourth in the Big East – led to alterations in coaching assignments. Stewart, the unit's coordinator, is now a punt team specialist and can devote more of his time to all phases after relinquishing quarterback coaching duties to first-year assistant Rod Smith. Stewart's assistants are defensive backs coach Tony Gibson on punt block, defensive line coach Bill Kirelawich on PAT block, safeties coach Bruce Tall on kickoffs, offensive coordinator/running backs and assistant head coach Calvin Magee on kickoff return and offensive line coach Greg Frey on PAT and field goal.

"There are six of us amigos, and it has been good," said Stewart, who also coaches tight ends and fullbacks, a less-demanding spot vacated when Herb Hand took the offensive coordinator position at Tulsa. "I am more hands-on than I have been in the past. It frees me up. I don't have to be down there watching routes and watching film every night. Now I am at every special teams (meeting). It's a good change. We have a chance to be pretty respectable. And they know it. We have to work and all those things, but we have a chance. Let's hope the results are good."

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