Improving Punt Returns A Must For Mountaineers

Improving Punt Returns A Must For Mountaineers


If there was one phase of West Virginia’s game that had to be addressed before this season, it was its punt return unit.

It is difficult to fathom just how unproductive that unit was. Out of 128 teams, the Mountaineers ranked 124th.

Put it this way: Texas A&M was No. 1 in the nation and averaged 25.36 yards per punt return, bringing four back for touchdowns. West Virginia averaged 1.86 yards a return.

Need we mention none were for touchdowns?

Gary Jennings

“It’s been good, both guys (Gary Jennings and David Sills) have been solid,” special teams coach Mark Scott said this week. “What we’ve done a really good job of as we’ve progressed this fall is not only working as many bodies as we can on punt, but trying to get our punt and punt-block units quality reps by going good on good as much as we can.”

Such things are often underemphasized in practice, especially since many injuries occur in the kicking game, which makes coaches leery of putting their best players out there and of running them through hard, live practice sessions.

And it hasn’t just been on the punt return side, for there’s a big challenge ahead in the season opener.

“We’re putting our guys in the front line and putting our shield in as tough of a position as we possibly can,” Scott said. “I don’t want to look too far ahead, but I think we all know Virginia Tech’s track record when it comes to special teams and blocking kicks.

“So, we have to put those guys under as much stress as we can. We’ve gotten a lot better from the first few practices and we’re continuing to get better and working new bodies who can protect and get out in coverage.

“(Redshirt junior kicker/punter) Billy (Kinney) and (redshirt freshman kicker/punter) Jonn (Young) have been good; they need to continue to get more consistent and, the biggest thing, at times it’s been good, we’ve been fairly consistent, but ball placement; — where we want it if we’re across the field, if we’re kicking into the boundary. We need that ball to match up with our coverage. They’ve been good, but we just need to continue to improve in that.”

As for the returners, there’s no telling what Scott might come up with.

“We’ve been working different guys the entire time. Depending on who we’re playing, what their scheme is and the situation of the game, we feel comfortable,” he said.

“Obviously, Gary is dependable. So far, he has taken his game to the next level both at receiver and I think he feels more comfortable, more confident in catching the ball and going on punt returns.

“But (junior receiver) David Sills is a guy who is very similar to Gary in terms of dependability. Then, you have (sophomore receiver) Marcus Simms and (freshman running back) Tevin Bush that are electric with the ball in their hands.”

The electric return can change a game, as the likes of Shelton Gibson, Tavon Austin, Jock Sanders and a number of other Mountaineers proved in prior years.

“We just need to continue to get those guys as many reps as we can. We’ve been really working those four guys and, right now, we feel good about any of them. But we’ll get them as many reps as they can get and get a feel for the situation of the game and how many reps those guys are playing on offense will determine who goes out there and when,” Scott said.

So it is that Scott, in charge of that unit, has done his research, made changes and has held virtually open tryouts for the returner, with last year’s returner Jennings putting in a strong bid to return while challenged by Sills, the former quarterback turned receiver back for a second stint in Morgantown.

And don’t count the diminutive Bush out of the mix, either, for this 5-foot-5 dynamite is capable of the long, breakaway runs.

“We just need to continue to get those guys as many reps as we can. We’ve been really working those four guys and, right now, we feel good about any of them. But we’ll get them as many reps as they can get and get a feel for the situation of the game and how many reps those guys are playing on offense will determine who goes out there and when,” Scott said.

Jennings is not quietly stepping aside.

A year ago, the wide receiver was new at the job and head coach Dana Holgorsen had emphasized above all else making sure he caught the ball, with returns being a secondary item.

Jennings knows that’s not a good situation.

“Last year we didn’t have any punt return yards,” Jennings said. “This year I expect to take on that challenge and do a lot better on my end. It starts with yourself. I expect to make smarter decisions.”

The thing that some people do not understand is just how difficult returning punts is.

“I think punt returning in general is the hardest thing to do in football,” Jennings said. “It begins with the ball being up there and moving everywhere. You have to do your film study on how the punter punts the ball, on how they cover the punt, where they are coming from.

“The first thing you do is secure the ball … even before that you have to make a decision whether to catch the ball or not. Then you have to make good decisions on what to do with the ball.”

When you have decided whether to catch it or not and whether to fair catch, depending on where the defenders are, it’s you against the world.

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This topic contains 2 replies, has 3 voices, and was last updated by  Pedro82 .

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  • #19008

    Bob Hertzel

    Improving Punt Returns A Must For Mountaineers If there was one phase of West Virginia’s game that had to be addressed before this season, it was its
    [See the full post at: Improving Punt Returns A Must For Mountaineers]

    #19145

    cous1y

    Tevin Bush could very well be the X factor on PR and KR this year. Throwback to Billy “White Shoes” Johnson of Houston Oiler fame.

    #19183

    Pedro82

    I have felt for a long time that our PR issue is more up front than on the back end.  Opposing teams’ coverage units get down and on top of our returners way too easy.  Hard for a thoroughbred to get out of a corral.

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