For many issues facing a team in preseason, the answer is practice. Drill and drill on the things that are weak. If you don't run block well, the offensive line puts in extra work on the sleds and pads, and concentrates on technique. If a player doesn't catch the ball well, he works on tennis ball drills, on adjusting to the ball by doing blind side JUGS gun work, by catching the ball and getting whacked by multiple pads and defenders. However, the feeling from here is that straight work isn't always the answer to some special teams areas, which often end up being as much an art form as they are an athletic feat.
The word "chemistry" is often overused in sports. We apply it to the team mood and demeanor – how players mesh and behave together on the field and in the locker room. There aren't any concrete items that go into making up a team's chemistry – many times it's just a case of whether a team "has it" or not. Any number of factors might contribute, but there are no hard and fast rules that govern how a team's chemistry will come together, or fail to coalesce. And there's no predicting it either – it's usually only identifiable in hindsight. Everyone says in the preseason that players are working hard and coming together, but it doesn't always play out that way.
To some degree, chemistry can depend on wins and losses. Teams that are successful usually have happier locker rooms, with small problems overlooked or quickly remedied. Teams on a losing streak can see similar issues balloon and tear it apart.
What does all this have to do with kickoff coverage? Well, from this viewpoint, a great deal. While coverage teams do require talents such as speed to get downfield, elusiveness to avoid blocks, and the strength to get off them and make tackles, it often seems as if it's a matter of chemistry as much as anything that determines the success of units such as coverage teams and kick block teams.
Certainly, personnel changes can make a difference, but a quick look at year-to-year standings reveals some large statistical swings in some of these "art form" aspects of the game. West Virginia was 55th overall in 2007 in kickoff return defense, allowing a respectable 21.09 yards per return. In 2006, it was an outstanding ninth in the nation, yielding just 17.10 yards per return. Yet, in 2008, those numbers ballooned to 28.00 yards per return and a national ranking of 117 – just two spots from the bottom of Division I.
It wasn't just WVU, either. Maryland, the top team in kickoff coverage in the nation in 2007, fell to number 90 in 2008. There are a number of other examples, all pointing out the general question – what happened, and how do you fix it?
There are other factors to consider, of course. Did West Virginia's coaches contribute to the problem? Bill Stewart, who oversaw special teams as an assistant coach during the previous two seasons, didn't suddenly forget what had worked when he set out plans for 2008. WVU also had kicker Pat McAfee back, who excelled at placing the ball in the spots called for by the kicking game (other than deep into the end zone, which is obviously the first choice). And it had back a number of defenders that played on special teams in previous seasons. With all of those ingredients in the mix, did anyone predict the coverage disaster of 2008?
As a result, it's hard to point the finger of blame in any one direction, much less figure out a cure. And while some shortcomings were evident (WVU, for example, was very bad in getting off blocks in coverage), it's hard to pinpoint just why the Mountaineers fell to the bottom of the NCAA heap in this area. Those same players, many of them linebackers and defensive backs, have the ability to shed blocks and make tackles on from scrimmage on defense. Is running downfield and doing the same thing that much different?
The answer, at least in part, lies in the chemistry angle. Sometimes a group of players simply fit well together, and the sum is greater than the individual parts. Whatever their individual talents, some units simply perform better than might be expected because of that synergy. The same thing can happen on other squads, such as kickoff return units or kick block teams. Why is it that Nate Terry, a solid but certainly not the fastest guy around, averaged 24.6 yards per kickoff return over his Mountaineer career, and took three back for scores? Some of it was his talent, of course, but the 1997 kickoff return unit simply had a knack for execution that others lacked.
This isn't to say of course, that it's all luck. Coaches aren't going to just throw up their hands, pull 11 guys out of a hat and throw them on the field. WVU will certainly put in as much work as possible on finding a unit that can improve on last year's play. However, it has to be frustrating to try to find the right mix of players and schemes that will ensure success in the critical, yet sometimes mystical, world of special teams.