West Virginia Looks To Shore Up Punt Return, Establish Kickoff Starters
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – West Virginia’s special teams have been a mix of successful and stressful over the past half decade.
The Mountaineers have had electric returners like Tavon Austin, Shelton Gibson and Mario Alford, along with NFL caliber long snapper John DePalma and a Lou Groza Award finalist in Josh Lambert. But there’s also been a dearth of big plays in the punt return game, and a handful of shanks that allowed players like Kansas State’s Tyler Lockett to seal games with return touchdowns.
Last season alone, West Virginia ranked 11th in kickoff return yardage and 22nd in net punting and punt return defense. Yet it was 124th of 128 teams (Thanks East Carolina, Georgia State, UNLV and … Kansas) in punt return yardage at a paltry 1.86 yards per. The reasons were provided, namely a front line that failed to block adequately and give Gary Jennings at fighting chance at a run back.
Forget spectacular. The question remains about how to ensure the special teams are simply sound in all phases.
“We’ve got Gary working back there, we’ve got Marcus Simms working back there, David Sills, Tevin Bush,” special teams coach Mark Scott said. “We’ve got guys that are catching the ball, and guys that are more explosive. Gary was dependable, but we were really bad upfront and it seemed like every time he was catching the ball, he had somebody in his face. It’s not just on the returner, it’s on those other 10 guys and we’ve worked those techniques all throughout the spring and we’ve had them each of the last couple days here.
“But again, it’s the same thing: If the returner can make a guy miss, that’s great. A lot of times we will ask him to make one guy miss, but he can’t make three or four miss.”
Jennings actually held up well under constant assault last season, with his numbers (21 punt returns for only 39 yards along with two kickoff returns for 28 yards) not rewarding the courage shown. The receiver is still the most dependable punt catcher WVU as, but the trio of challengers could make an impact. Sills is an underrated athlete with better moves than expected. Simms can flash some quickness, and has the needed vertical burst. And Bush, who’s also playing running back and receiver, was the 10th ranked all-purpose player in the nation in high school.
“That’s something I want to do,” Sills said. “I feel like I can be really good at it if I worked at it enough. It can he hard when you know someone’s coming down there to take your head off, but you just gotta set the offense with a good field position.”
If the Mountaineers can shore up the protection and blocking, the numbers should jump accordingly. Another of Scott’s tasks involves the development of kicker John Young, who was red-shirted in 2016. In high school, Young was rated the number one kicker in North Carolina and the number seven kicker in the nation after scoring 94 points in his high school career.
But his directional kicking was poor last season, to the point where the staff felt an additional year in the program prior to contributing would benefit him. While Young’s control has gotten better, Scott still needs to see more in camp to truly pen him in for kickoffs.
“He’s got an extremely talented leg.” Scott said. “It took him a while to understand it’s different (in college). There are guys that we’re gonna face at returner that will take the ball five yards out of the end zone. Our kicks have to match our coverage. I’d rather have it at the goal line with hang-time to allow our guys to use their speed to get down there in the placement that we need it as opposed to kicking it three yards deep in the end zone right down the middle and having it be a low kick.
“He’s one of 11 guys out there and it all starts with him and if our kick isn’t what we need then it puts 10 guys in a terrible spot and they’ve really have to work their butts off to be able to adjust and get through the play.”
West Virginia could also use senior Mike Molina or redshirt freshman Evan Staley on kickoffs, though they’d like to take the extra work off Molina, who will be the starting placekicker.
“It’s still early,” Scott said. “We work different phases on different days. In the kickoff, that’s a 10- to 12-yard running start; that’s the most explosive movement. We’re not going to do that three or four times per week. But we’re going to continue to build it, continue to chart it and continue to work as many guys as we need to. As we get deeper into camp, we’ll have a better idea on who our number one is and who is our number two. Again, that’s going to be a fluid situation throughout camp and, really, throughout the year.”
Billy Kinney will punt and hold. The long snapper is Nick Meadows, making a point after and placekick a completely West Virginia affair in terms of in-state recruits.