The placekicking game was thought to be solid with the return of Tyler Bitancurt, but his absence form the first two weeks of spring drills with an ankle injury have left nothing to go on in terms of evaluation of any improvements he may have made. This isn't a reason for panic, of course, but in his absence transfer Corey Smith has shown an ugly tendency to kick the ball low, resulting in numerous blocks during full rush drills. Smith certainly has the leg to boot the ball from afar, but booting it into the line of scrimmage won't result in any points. Walk-on John Howard doesn't have the leg strength of either Bitancurt or Smith, but he has made some contested kicks during scrimmages.
Punting has been a similar inconsistent affair. Smith has boomed some kicks with the roll punt technique, but has also gotten off some clunkers. It's still a relative new method for him, however, and the hope is that he will improve his consistency as he gets more kicks under his belt. Greg Pugnetti, like Howard, doesn't have the raw strength that Smith shows, and he also battle with the occasional very short boot.
Kickoffs are a total mystery at this point. No live drills have been done to date, and although Smith can put the ball in the end zone when he hits it well, that's only part of the problem with West Virginia's coverage issues. The rule change for this year that removes tightly formed wedge blocking on kickoff returns might help WVU's coverage woes, but this is likely a question that's not going to be fully answered until the Mountaineers take the field against live opposition in September.
Coming into the spring, we knew the defensive line was set to be the best in the Big East conference. With returning starters Chris Neild, Julian Miller and Scooter Berry, the front line looks very good, even with Berry sitting out to recover from shoulder surgery. Depth is a bit of a concern, but fast blooming Will Clarke, Jorge Wright and plugger Josh Taylor should be good enough to fill the gaps. Behind that group, the linebackers have looked good with Pat Lazear in the middle and Anthony Leonard on the strong side offset by J.T. Thomas on the weak side. There is also depth building there, with Najee Goode and redshirt freshmen Branko Busick and Tyler Anderson making noise. In the secondary, a nice mix of veterans (Robert Sands, Brandon Hogan, Sidney Glover, Eain Smith and Keith Tandy) should blend with some rising talents (Terence Garvin, Brodrick Jenkins, Pat Miller and Darwin Cook) to give West Virginia a bit more depth in the back end. Jenkins has pulled ahead of Miller in the backup battle at corner.
Of course, some questions remain. Berry and Hogan can't repeat the off-field issues that plagued them in recent months. Tandy has to stay healthy and get on the practice field consistently, which has been a problem during his career. Blitzers that can get to the quarterback before he releases the ball must be found (no holds are barred in identifying positions and locations from which to do that – WVU might even move Sands down to the bandit position in some passing downs and use him as a blitzer). But if just a couple more answers can be found, West Virginia could have a very stingy defensive unit in 2010.
It's the perennial question for the Mountaineer program: Can it get the ball to anyone downfield? WVU has resorted to swinging the ball out wide and dropping very short passes to receivers over the past few years. We won't re-list the well-known litany of problems, but West Virginia simply has to find someone that can catch the ball downfield in order to loosen pressure on its running game. The move of Tavon Austin and Eddie Davis are the first attempts, but will the Mountaineers try to get that pair of speedsters deep, even though they aren't experienced pass catchers?
The progress in this area has been hindered by the absence of Geno Smith from full scale drills. Although Smith makes every throw in skeleton work, which does include linebackers and defensive backs, there's simply no replacement for throwing and working against 11 defenders. While the coaching staff is doing everything it can to downplay this problem, there's simply no denying the fact that the passing game will suffer somewhat, especially early in the year, from the lost time this spring.
WVU will likely again be forced to hope that an incoming freshman can provide some of the help it's looking for, but that's been the hope for the past five or six years, and none have ever panned out. Maybe this year will be different, but it again points out the big deficiency the Mountaineers have in one facet of its offensive attack.
The left side of the line, with Donny Barclay, Josh Jenkins and center Joe Madsen, looks at least solid, although there were certainly leaks all along the offensive front in 2009. The right side, with Eric Jobe and recently moved Jeff Braun, is still a work in progress. Braun, who moved out to tackle from his guard spot a year ago, believes that the position is a more natural fit for him, and he thinks that with continued work the line play will come together. There has been progress over the first two weeks, so there is some evidence to back that up, but the pace will have to continue over the final two weeks of spring drills, and especially in the fall.
The brightest light of the spring along the line has been the progression of the large class of freshmen, who are definitely improving in both technique and performance as the spring progresses. Will any be able to challenge for a starting spot by the fall? There's a long way to go for that to happen, but one veteran observer of the offensive line that we spoke with has an optimistic view of the class. The thinking is that every member of last year's freshman class has the ability to be a solid contributor and starter at some point in their careers. It probably won't be this year for all of them, but players such as Cole Bowers and Nick Kindler could be in the mix for some playing time as the season progresses. If they have to be rushed into duty too soon, the results won't be great, but West Virginia should at least have some backups that can play some snaps later in the year, when the wear and tear of a long season takes its toll.