WVU Position Glance: Special Teams
By Greg Hunter
West Virginia returns all its starting specialists from last year.
But that group of kickers, holders and snappers will not waltz into the 2017 without competition for their starting jobs. It’s not that the Mountaineer specialists did poorly last year. But there are some youngsters who don’t figure to quietly wait their turn until the current group graduates. Instead there figure to be several challengers for jobs this year, especially for the kicking duties.
Mike Molina stepped in as WVU’s placekicker last year, subbing for the suspended Josh Lambert early in the year and then eventually taking over the job full-time after Lambert quit the team. A 5-foot-7, 179-pounder from Hurricane, W.Va., Molina had a solid junior season in 2016, making 15-of-22 field goal attempts while converting all 51 of his PAT tries. While Molina did hit a 50-yard field goal against Baylor last year, he was typically best from inside 40 yards, where he made 13-of-17 attempts. He was just 2-of-6 from 40+. Molina also handled West Virginia’s kickoff duties last year, where 25 of his 79 boots were touchbacks.
Billy Kinney also settled in for his first year handling WVU’s punting duties and performed very well. A 6-foot-4, 218-pound product of Morgantown’s University High, Kinney was fourth in the Big 12 in punting last season, averaging 41.7 yards per kick. Seven of his punts went over 50 yards, and of his 59 attempts, 17 ended up inside the 20-yard line while only five went across the goal line for a touchback. Kinney, who also served as WVU’s holder in 2016, now returns for his junior season, but like Molina, Kinney can’t rest easy.
Jonn Young was a highly regarded punter and kicker when WVU signed him to a scholarship coming out of Davie County (N.C.) High School in the spring of 2016. Possessing a strong leg but in needed of some consistency, Young redshirted last year. He’s capable of handling any or all of the three kicking chores – placekicking, kickoffs or punting. The 6-foot, 200-pound Young isn’t the only kicker who could challenge for a job as a redshirt freshman. Evan Staley is a 6-foot-1, 184-pound product of Hampshire (W.Va.) High School who quickly impressed WVU’s coaches last fall with his ability to punt. He also was excellent on placekicks and field goals in high school, when he earned the Fulton Walker Award in 2015 as the state’s top special teams player.
In addition, WVU has two other kickers on its roster, both of whom are walk-ons. Luke Hogan is a transfer from the University of Houston. A 6-foot-1, 192-pound product of Keller, Texas, Hogan is a redshirt freshman who will have to sit out the coming year because of transfer rules. Another Molina is also in the pipeline, as Mike’s younger brother Matt joined the program this summer. The 5-foot-7, 160-pound true freshman graduated from Cabell Midland High School near Huntington and now is going to follow, or maybe even beat out, his older brother.
Like Mike Molina and Billy Kinney, Nick Meadows is a Mountain State product who came to WVU as a walk-on. The 5-foot-11, 228-pound product of Williamstown (W.Va.) High School waited his turn before finally winning the starting long snapper duties last year as a redshirt junior. The Tommy Nickolich Award winner this spring, given to the team’s top walk-on, Meadows handled every one of West Virginia’s long snaps to near perfection in 2016 and now will look for a repeat performance as a fifth-year senior.
The Mountaineers would like to start grooming Meadows’ eventual replacement. WVU currently has two other long snappers on the roster in redshirt freshman Kyle Poland and third-year sophomore Rex Sunahara. A former transfer from Rhode Island, Rex is the son of West Virginia’s third-year volleyball coach Reed Sunahara.
WVU didn’t do much with kickoff and punt returners in the spring, but those special teams units will see significant practice work once preseason camp starts in August.
The Mountaineers have long featured very good kickoff return teams, but their punt returners have not provided big plays in recent years. Wide receiver Shelton Gibson was a huge kickoff return threat the past couple of years (24.9 ypr), like Mario Alford and Tavon Austin before him. But Gibson, like the other two, is now in the NFL, so West Virginia will be looking for someone else to provide the lightning. Returning junior receivers Gary Jennings and Jovon Durante also have seen time as kick returners, and Durante likely will take over as WVU’s primary kickoff returner this year, though he could be challenged by any number of players, including freshman running back Tevin Bush.
Jennings handled all of West Virginia’s punt returns last season. While the Stafford, Va., native didn’t provide any big plays (WVU was next to last in the Big 12 in punt returns, averaging just 1.9 yards per try), he also handled almost every catch cleanly, which certainly wasn’t the case for the Mountaineers in years past. So West Virginia’s coaches will have to decide whether to risk muffs and fumbles with a new, potentially more explosive punt returner or stick with the sure-handed Jennings, who may not provide many big plays. Again Bush could be an option here if the WVU coaches want to look for a home run threat.
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