Forget Finesse: It's Now Pure Power

West Virginia tried a rugby punt on the first attempt against Western Michigan. It went six yards. So, reasoned special teams coach Bill Stewart, why not allow Pat McAfee to bang away out of a traditional set more often to maximize power and accuracy in every aspect.

That's the initial plan against Marshall (0-1), a 31-3 opening game loser to Miami. The Thundering Herd utilizes receiver Emmanuel Spann and tailback Chubb Small in the return game, though neither had a single punt return yard against the Hurricanes mainly because Miami averaged just 26.8 yards per kick. But with McAfee's leg and dependable execution – his 18-footer was an extreme rarity – No. 4 WVU (1-0) will give the junior multiple chances out of a normal look.

"Pat is punting the ball in practice better than any kicker I have ever coached," said WVU head coach Rich Rodriguez.

McAfee was upset with his performance against Western Michigan. His lone punt was shanked, and he missed just his second extra point in 120 career tries. He made eight others, and was able to coax the Broncos into downing the ball in the end zone to start at the 20-yard line twice, a surprise with the new NCAA kickoff rules stating the ball is to be placed at the 30-yard line instead of the 35. That didn't help the Plum, Pa. native's demeanor, however.

"I let the team down," said McAfee, among the most self-punishing of players. "The offensive line is in the trenches, struggling, battling every play. They get it down there, get it in the end zone for six points with the expectation for seven. I trot out there and miss it. I shanked a punt. It lets them down and it lets my backups down, the guys I am supposed to be better than. It's an insult to them."

McAfee has hit 118 of 120 career point afters and 28 of 40 field goals. He has more than 200 career points, and his punting average, expected to be used to the fullest when needed against Marshall, is 41 yards.

"He just miss-hit it," Stewart said. "You could see from the film he just dropped the ball. It hit the right side of his foot. I told Rich ‘If we punt again, we're just going to allow him to hit it, to boom it down there.' So we are going to challenge (Marshall). We are going to get out there and let it go and see what happens. We'll roll him some, but we are going to punt the football. We have to do it. He is booming the ball like (WVU and NFL great Todd) Sauerbrun, so I am going to let him do it. Today we did (the rugby kick) and he drilled it. But we need to let him see if he can really hit it and see if we can run down there and cover guys."

West Virginia, which practices every game aspect known, held recent a post-safety kick session. Many teams allow their specialists to place kick from the 20-yard line. McAfee punts from there, and his punts carried from the 20 down to the four-yard line, a 76-yard boot through the air. Leg strength has never been a question, and rarely does McAfee miss a punt. Even the point after was actually a breakdown on the hold rather than the kick. The snap and blocking were also solid, despite snapper Adam Hughes' being punched in the forehead on one play. But the fact is that, like quarterbacks, McAfee gets too much credit for his success and too much grief for his failures. Still, the execution needs to be better, and Stewart realizes that it must be, especially against a team that averaged 21 yards per return versus Miami, one of the fastest special teams units in the nation.

"Marshall got after it," Stewart said. "Chubb Small and Emmanuel are explosive. I like them both, I just don't want to watch them. Last year we had a spread punt and they did not get a chance to return the ball. Kickoffs, we will kick it maybe three yards deep and they will still bring it out. We have our work cut out. You know we will run down the field fast. We have pretty good speed and I feel good about that. But we have to get great leverage. I am concerned about that. You take those little guys and if (the blockers) can get leverage it's like with our little guys like Vaughn Rivers and Antonio Lewis. They can get by you."

To help with the coverage on both units, but especially kickoff, West Virginia will employ its "wedge busters' threesome: Pat Lazear, Andy Emery and Bobby Hathaway. Their kamikaze-like job is simple. Run down the field as fast as possible and blow up the heart of any blocking schemes. That typically means taking out two players on any play. Sometimes, as an overzealous Lazear did in the opener, drilling a teammate can happen as well, especially on punts. But on the kickoff, choose a lane and crush foes – plural.

"I tell them that if you go down, two must go with you," Stewart said. "They have to be reckless. They can't be crazy, but they have to be daring. They have to go and not let people block them. You can't trade one for one. You have to take two out. (Lazear) is a lot like Scott Gyorko and Marc Magro were. He attacks his responsibility. He is full bore. He is coming and there will be an explosion. It's what makes him."

McAfee and West Virginia will use their typical trio system against Marshall. The wedge blockers will be downfield first because of their straight-ahead run. The fold players, typically great technicians able to free themselves off blocks, will sweep in, cutting off any open lanes or holes. The slashers, usually smaller and faster skill players due to the long run and ability to tackle in space, will protect the outside.

It if all works, opposing teams should find themselves pinned inside the 20-yard line, as WMU did several times due to execution and McAfee's strong leg. As for the kicker, he is busting it this week in preparation for his next opportunity.

"He is his best friend and worst enemy," Stewart said. "He is so strong willed. He knows he can do it. It makes him irate not to be perfect. It drives into him. He has great character and is a hard worker. He is meticulous. He jokes around, but he crosses the Ts and dots the Is."

Mountaineers Daily Top Stories