Striving For More

Like most aspects of Mountaineer football this year, areas of West Virginia's special teams have needed some time to gel. The team's punt coverage has been great, but there have been struggles when covering kickoffs. Despite those problems, senior kicker Pat McAfee can't seem to place blame on any part of special teams.

"I'm really hitting kickoffs the best that I have ever hit them in my life. I think teams, I really do believe this, I think teams are getting lucky on us. Every time in film we have a guy who should make a tackle and they will get a lucky block in on us. I think teams are getting lucky and I think once we get everything clicking together it will be a great weapon. I think our kickoff team will be a great weapon," McAfee said.

Many fans wonder why McAfee (or any kicker) doesn't just boot the ball deep into the end zone, and thus avoid the perils of a return. That's one of those easier-said-than-done tasks, however. It takes a perfect hit to get the ball to fly the 70-plus yards necessary to get into that area, and even that doesn't ensure success. A low, driving kick that doesn't hang up high enough to give the coverage team time to get downfield can still be returned. And as McAfee and his teammates have seen, even kicks four or five yards deep are being run out by return men eager to make a big play, or take advantage of West Virginia's leaky coverage. Unless McAfee's theory is proven out, however, there's not much more the Mountaineers can do than keep working on the problem, or make changes in personnel.

No such problems have surfaced on the punt coverage team, where McAfee's high-hanging kicks have helped WVU sport one of the best net punting averages in the nation. That's a bit counter-intuitive when viewed in relation to McAfee's experience at the position.

"I asked [UConn's] Desi Cullen when he started punting and he said when he was 12. I told him he was a cheater," McAfee joked.

Although McAfee got a late start on punting, he is hoping to continue to improve because he recognizes the importance of that skill.

"We really control field position. We really control that. That's the only way they're used as a threat. Unless you run a fake, which we haven't really done much of," McAfee said, overlooking the runs of Phil Brady in the Sugar Bowl and Zac Cooper's first down run this year.

The senior is still adjusting to punting, despite his success. Although he has been kicking his entire life, whether it be playing soccer or kicking in high school, punting has been more difficult than McAfee had anticipated.

"People in the NFL make (punting) look a lot easier than it is. I'm kind of learning that now. Punting is a lot harder than kicking. When you see some of the good ones like Cullen and the kid from Syracuse, they really make it look easy but it's not," McAfee noted. "If one thing is off or the wind affects you just a little bit you really can shank the ball, which is what happened to me (against Connecticut). I'm excited to get on the field and punt another one."

McAfee had a solid average last year when he punted the ball 46 times for an average of 42.7 yards per boot. This season McAfee has a 41-yard punt average and despite being close to his previous average, he is unhappy with his effort.

"Forty-one (yards) this year isn't that good. Last year I would have accepted that but right now Coach Stew and I are so used to averaging more than that. The shank (punt) made me have a bad taste in my mouth," McAfee said.

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