While most coaching staffs spend a fair amount of time of special teams, the nature of that work is different than that devoted to offensive and defensive units. Any cursory examination of practice shows that the offense and defense gets a lot of work, in a variety of manners. There are individual periods, where skills and fundamentals are taught. There's unit and team work, where the schemes and tactics are drilled. Then there's scrimmaging, in various forms, from skelly to full contact, where the entire package is put together. Add all of that time up, and all of those different teaching methods, and by the end of fall camp coaches usually have a pretty good idea of where each of those units stands in terms of expected production.
Compare that to special teams, and it's easy to see why, as your old Magic Eight Ball used to say, "The Outlook is Cloudy". Certainly, kickers, punters and long snappers get in a lot of individual work. But aside from a handful of sessions breaking down coverage assignments for each side of the kickoff and punt coverage teams, there isn't anything approaching the unit work that the offense and defense gets. That's not because of neglect, however. It's simply a matter of the way the teams are constructed.
The same holds true in terms of full unit work. Placekicking and punting get regular full team work, but many times only the rush is live – there's no tackling on the return end. That's out of deference to the worry over injuries, which often occur when bodies are flying up and down the field in coverage situations. Certainly, most teams, including WVU, do run some live kick sessions, but the number of those doesn't come close to the number of those run for the offensive and defensive units.
Again, that's a matter of numbers. Teams might run 70 offensive and defensive plays in a game, compared to 20 special teams plays. Plays from scrimmage have to be finely honed. But the consequence is that it's difficult to get a handle on some special teams areas before a game is played.
Let's take a look at each of the six special teams at West Virginia and see what the prospects are for the upcoming season.
This might be the easiest area to get a handle on, as success is quickly judged in terms of protection and the number of kicks made. While keeping rushers away from the kicker isn't an easy task, it's one that has a high success rate, and any problems in this area should quickly show up during live runs. West Virginia has the ebullient Pat McAfee to handle the kicking duties, and while much attention gets paid to his outgoing personality, his proficiency in getting the ball up quickly and on target sometimes gets overlooked. Coupled with the comfortable pairing of Adam Hughes at snapper and Jeremy Kash holding, the Mountaineers look very solid in this area.
There are three ways to block a placekick – up, through and around. West Virginia typically employs the first two methods, deploying one or two jumpers to sky as high as possible at the line while interior linemen try to bull their way through the protection for a penetration block. Rushers can also come off the edge and get a kick on rare occasions, but the proficiency of snappers and holders in today's game mean that the majority of blocks come up the middle, not from the outside.
Timing is an important aspect for the jumpers, as they need to reach their peaks as the ball crosses the line of scrimmage. It's an unnoticed skill, and one that takes a good bit of practice to perfect. West Virginia has been neither outstanding nor bad in this area in recent seasons, and that trend is expected to continue this year. One bright beam on the horizon could be 6-5 safety Roget Sands, who will deploy as one of the jumpers on the block team.
Again, WVU is expected to mix up its punt schemes and alignments in order to keep foes guessing. By moving the punter around, and altering its line of scrimmage formations, West Virginia can keep foes from calling a specific rush or employing the same tactic in every punt situation. And while this means WVU has less time to spend on each different punt formation, it also forces opponents to prepare for every different punt scheme it has seen.
The proof of the success of this strategy is WVU's ranking in net punting – a year ago, the Mountaineers were 15th in the country, averaging 37.78 yards per punt. Those numbers highlight not only McAfee's proficiency, but also shines a light on WVU's coverage team, which yielded just 112 yards in returns all year.
Here's where the cloudiness really begins to seep in. Ellis Lankster has secured the starting job, and has handled punts flawlessly during fall camp. It's another matter entirely, however, to catch the ball in the heat of battle with hostile, agile and mobile defenders bearing down on you in a live situation. There's no reason to think Lankster can't do it – he's done it for his junior college and high school – but it's still a minor concern until he gets a couple under his belt.
The tactics of the return team also plays a big role. Set up the return, or go for the block? West Virginia was very good at the former a year ago, averaging 12.2 yards per return (that's like a free first down every possession) with sure handed Vaughn Rivers on the receiving end of most kicks. Can Lankster and his teammates deliver those sorts of numbers? There's no doubt that the punt return team was a big, if unnoticed, part of West Virginia's offense in 2007.
One other team variation to consider is "punt safe". That's when the regular defense is on the field, due to yardage to go or field position, on fourth down. It looks as if Quinton Andrews will be the deep receiver in these instances, and it's important that the guy back there makes good decisions and catches the ball cleanly.
Head coach Bill Stewart has indicated WVU will employ some of its kick return schemes from previous seasons, with the stated goal to set up one on one confrontations between blockers and defenders. Win a couple of those battles along one corridor, and a seam opens up that can be exploited. West Virginia hopes to unleash slashing runners like Noel Devine, Jock Sanders, Eddie Davis and Brandon Hogan into those gaps, and judging from the results in the last preseason scrimmage, it may be able to do that. WVU was 32nd nationally a year ago in this play phase, and certainly hopes to break into the top 20 with the planned modifications.
However, the early success shown in limited scrimmage action leads to concerns with…
This has been the least consistent of West Virginia's special teams over the last few years. In 2007, WVU was 55th, allowing just more than 21 yards per return. That number isn't awful, as the Mountaineers didn't give up a touchdown (although it did allow a 92-yarder to Marshall), but there's no doubt this is the number one target for improvement in 2008.
The trouble is, it's probably the toughest to work on. With limited numbers of players, it's just too risky to run through 15 or 20 live returns in a practice. And while the possibility of injury to starters on the kick return team can be limited with the use of backups, that tactic doesn't give the coverage team the same look. After all, it's probably much more difficult to tackle Devine or Sanders than it is a backup, no matter how much effort and gusto the subs put into the effort.
After watching a number of coverage teams over the past few seasons, it almost seems that chemistry plays as much a part in good kick coverage than anything. While it would seem a no-brainer to stock the cover teams with linebackers and safeties, that doesn't seem to be a magic bullet in terms of developing great squads. How those players fit together seems to be one of the key factors in developing great cover teams – and while the coaches certainly take that into consideration when stocking the squads, it's another one of those areas that won't be fully known until it goes live.