We'll start with placekicking, which was respectable, if not outstanding, this past season. The coaches are obviously hoping to improve this area, though, as they are handing a scholarship to Youngstown's Andrew Good. Returning for WVU are Todd James, who has the leg strength but struggled with consistency, and Casey Welch, whose lack of distance kept him on the bench. The coaches are hoping that Good can step in and be the kicker, which would free James up to do the punting. however, as I've maintained in the offensive and defensive outlooks, depending on freshmen at key positions can be dicey at best.
On the plus side, the act of kicking doesn't change a great deal from high school to college, but variables such as the speed of the rush, and kicking without a tee, serve to balance out that familiarity. The kicking battle will likely be wide open all the way through fall camp, and it's a position that the Mountaineers must solidify in order to hold on to their second place standing in the Big East.
The punting job will be James' to take, but he will have to improve his consistency, especially on directional kicks, here as well. WVU will also have to replace James Davis as the bullet on punt coverage, and find two players who can contain opposing return men. This is a critical, if often overlooked, area of special teams, and one which WVU fought with all last year. The Mountaineers need to find a pair of players who can keep the return man under control and out of the middle of the field until help arrives -- something they didn't do well last year.
While WVU's punt return team wasn't spectacular, Lance Frazier did an outstanding job of catching the ball and getting a few yards for the offense. The first job of the punt return man is to catch the ball cleanly, and Frazier did that very well. While some other players might get a look at the return spot, they will have to prove that they can secure the ball the way Frazier does. If they can do that, plus provide a breakaway threat, the Mountaineers might have their best punt return team since the days of Willie Drewery.
WVU also needs to find a consistent threat on kickoff returns, where Phil Braxton provided good yardage last year as a senior. Players like Travis Garvin and Adam Jones got looks in practice last year, and could be the guys running back kickoffs in 2003. Other candidates could come from the young wide receiving or running back corps. Chris Henry, Brandon Myles and Erick Phillips could all get an evaluation at running back opposing boots.
West Virginia's kickoff coverage was the most solid of the four special units last year, as Todd James placed the ball well, and the coverage team tackled crisply. While some seniors will have to be replaced, this team, like the punt return team, should be expected to provide solid play next year.
Add it all up, and there are just as many question marks for third watch as there are for the Mountaineer offensive and defensive units. There don't appear to be any gamebreakers on the horizon for the return teams, and both kicking spots are still unsettled, which leaves special teams coordinator Bill Stewart with another challenging task on his plate for the coming season.