While statistics can give an overall view of a team's performance, they can also be misleading. Thus, a recitation of WVU's improvements, at least in terms of numbers, from a year ago, don't provide a full picture. West Virginia is better overall at defending against opposing return teams, but its performance still isn't where it needs to be. With conference games looming, and what figure to be some very close games to determine the league title, every facet of play will be important. One big play could be the difference, and for WVU, worries about giving up a game breaker on a kickoff return are still very real.
Statistically, as noted, things look a little better. West Virginia is yielding an average of 21.8 yards per return, with a long of 46. However, that number must be viewed in light of the average landing point of kickoffs, which is hovering right around the 15-yard line. That's putting opposing offenses in good position, usually outside the 35, thus giving them a nice start for drives. At least West Virginia hasn't yielded a touchdown on a return yet, but that's small consolation when foes are getting the ball just three first downs away from field goal position.
We're going to go past those numbers, however, and look at the three issues that are plaguing the kickoff coverage team, and the possible solutions to those problems. The first is the depth, height and placement of kickoffs. This has ranged from average to bad so far this year, and prospects for improvement are, like the performance to date, unsteady. West Virginia simply doesn't have anyone that can consistently kick the ball to the five-yard line with any consistency or sufficient height, so it's no good wishing that it were so. Without that ability, WVU is left with a few other options for the kicking part return coverage. It can sky kick, trying for increased height and attempting to drop the ball around the 15-yard line or so. It can try directional kicks – aiming balls to come down outside the numbers on the field. As a last resort, it could squib kick – hoping for a bad bounce that limits the chances for a return. Each of those, however, has its drawbacks.
WVU's attempts at sky kicks haven't been very successful, most notably because it hasn't been able to get sufficient height on the kicks to get the coverage team down the field. West Virginia's normal kicks have been coming down around the 15-yard line, so sky kick attempts would probably be dropping around the 25 or so. Combined with other problems we'll discuss shortly, that's not an attractive option. It should also be noted that kicking the ball very high isn't an easy thing to learn. For kickers that may not have attempted that before, it's a difficult skill to master and execute consistently.
WVU has tried to kick the ball to one side of the field in order to pin the return to that side of the field, but the placement on those kicks haven't been great. Kicks have come down between the hash marks and the numbers more often than not, and thus haven't provided the coverage team with the angle or spotting they need to pin the ball against the sideline. That last option, a squib kick, isn't very attractive at all. If the return person gets a good bounce, he will often have even more room to run than on a regular kick. They can also be picked off by an upfield member of the return team and provide even better field position.
West Virginia's best option, absent the sudden ability to kick the ball deep, is to try to mix up the kicks and attempt to keep foes off balance. However, there just hasn't been much differentiation to date, and unless height on kicks can be improved, there's not much that can be done in this area.
The second issue plays partly off the first. This one involves the speed and coverage ability of those on the squad. A review of WVU's kickoffs against Colorado found this rather disturbing fact – Buffalo returners were averaging catching the ball around the 15-yard line, but West Virginia's coverage team was getting no closer than the 30-yard line before the catch was made. Even with a clear shot at the return man, which rarely happens, that meant that returners are able to run to at least the 25 or so before contending with the coverage. Whether the problem is speed of the coverage team, or inability to dodge initial block attempts in the open field, this is a serious issue. WVU simply has to figure out a way to get further downfield if the ball is only going to the 15 or so. A very high sky kick that forces a fair catch around the 25-yard line would be much better than what's occurring now, which is allowing returners to get up to speed with good field position already established. Just putting faster players on the coverage team might not be the answer, either, as they need skills we'll talk about next.
The final problem is one of getting off blocks and making tackles. Some of WVU's cover team members struggle to shed blocks, or don't stress blockers at all. They end up getting shielded by blockers, and although they are in range to make a tackle, often can't do more than get an arm out, because they are tied up by their opponents. West Virginia's defenders work on shedding blocks every day in practice, especially linebackers and safeties, and this should be a skill that all of them possess to some degree. However, it's not consistently evident on kickoffs.
Other items also contribute in this problem area. Players can be seen slowing down and hesitating during their runs down the field – a fatal flaw that allows gaps to develop and doesn't put pressure on the return team. While cover team members must "get their feet under them" and be under control during the last few steps before closing on the return man, the hesitance and tentative play that's seen on some returns is a sure recipe for a long return. So too are missed tackles, which contributed to two of Colorado's bigger returns.
Add all these up, and it's not hard to see why West Virginia continues to struggle in this area of special teams. Unfortunately, there's no magic potion for correcting any of these issues. Hard work and attention to detail are important, but so too are the natural abilities of shedding blocks, striking blockers and making crisp tackles. Until those things become consistent, West Virginia will continue to be average at best in slowing opposing return specialists.