WVU Special Teams Outlook: A Couple Of Big Pairs Of Shoes To Fill
West Virginia football, and indeed much of the athletic world, may have halted for now in the face of the COVID-19 threat.
With the grace of God, though, eventually we’ll all return to normalcy at some point, and when that happens, football will be discussed again. WVU fans will want to know what to expect in 2020, so we are continuing with our position-by-position look at what to anticipate from West Virginia next season.
Today we focus on special teams.
The Mountaineers saw significant improvements in many special teams areas in the first season of the Neal Brown era.
Statistically WVU was better in net punting (39.2 in 2019 and 37.5 in 2018) and kickoff returns (20.5 in 2019 and 17.7 in 2018), as well as kickoff coverage (net average of 41.3 in 2019, which was the best in the Big 12, and 39.4 in 2018) and punt coverage (1.4 average against in 2019 and 1.6 in 2018). The areas where West Virginia did not improve were punt returns (4.6 average in 2019 and 5.6 in 2018) and field goals (13 of 21 in 2019 and 16 of 20 in 2018).
The Mountaineers will bring back a number of those key special teams components from last season, but they also have a couple big pair of shoes to fill.
Returning – Leighton Bechdel (P, RFr.), J.P. Hadley (LS, Soph.), Casey Legg (K, Soph.), Evan Matthes (P, Soph.), Kolton McGhee (P/K, RFr.), Kyle Poland (LS, Sr.), Evan Staley (K, Sr.)
Departed – Matt Daniel (P, Fr.), Josh Growden (P, Sr.), Rex Sunahara (LS, Sr.)
Recently enrolled newcomers – None
Expected to enroll this summer – Danny King (P/K, Fr.), Kaulin Parris (P/K, Fr.)
Punters – Worried to turn West Virginia’s punting duties over to an untried youngster heading into 2019, Brown conducted a late search for a veteran option and came up with a gem.
After four years at LSU, Josh Growden was ready to give up the game and head back to his native Australia with his bachelor’s degree in hand. But an offer by WVU late in the summer convinced Growden to become a Mountaineer. He arrived in Morgantown shortly after preseason camp had begun, and quickly secured the starting punting job, as well as that of West Virginia’s holder on placements. Growden proved excellent at each, concluding his final collegiate season with an average of 42.1 yards per punt and giving up just 100 return yards all year on his 68 boots. Of those kicks, seven were 50+, 18 came to rest inside the 20 and only three were touchbacks. His effort earned him honorable mention All-Big 12 notice.
With Growden now gone, Brown will have the same options to replace him as he did prior to the Aussie’s arrival, though those options are now a year older. None saw game action last year, but the work in practice is expected to help greatly. Leighton Bechdel (5-11, 180 lbs., RFr.) was a true freshman walk-on last year, while Kolton McGhee (6-0, 174 lbs, RFr.) also was a true freshman in 2019, but came to WVU with a scholarship in hand. Evan Matthes (6-1, 208 lbs., Soph.) also is back after two years with the squad.
McGhee was both an excellent punter and placekicker for Bishop Guilfoyle High School in Altoona, Pennsylvania, where he was a two-time first-team all-state honoree. He averaged 46.2 yards per punt his senior year. Matthes was a second-team Virginia Class 6A all-state member while at South Lakes High School in Reston, Virginia. Bechdel was a first-team All-Metro punter and placekicker for Towson (Md.) High School, where he was also a two-time lacrosse All-American.
West Virginia has some further punting competitors coming in via the preferred walk-on route this summer, but Bechdel, Matthes and McGhee will have the position to themselves for now.
Placekickers – Evan Staley (6-1, 190 lbs., Sr.) took over West Virginia’s PAT/FG duties midway through his redshirt freshman season in 2017. The Hampshire (W.Va.) High grad made six of seven field goals that first season and then 16-of-20 the next with a long of 49 yards. He was bothered by a groin strain in the latter half of the 2019 season, but still managed to make 11-of-17 field goals on the year with a long of 44 yards. He also has missed just one of his 97 career extra point attempts.
Staley returns for his senior season, but he’ll have competition for the placekicking job from both Casey Legg (6-4, 215 lbs., Soph.) and Kolton McGhee (6-0, 174 lbs, RFr.).
Legg’s unusual road to college football is known by most WVU fans by now. The Charleston native was an outstanding soccer player at Cross Lanes Christian School, but his school did not have a football team, and Legg had never played that sport until deciding to seek a walk-on opportunity at WVU as a true freshman in 2018. He did kickoff once against Baylor that year, but then last season he assumed a more prominent role. Legg got a few more kickoff chances early in the year, and then when Staley was forced to sit out a few games with his injury, Legg got the opportunity to kick both field goals and PATs for the first time in his life in a game. He made two of his four field goal attempts, including a big 51-yarder in the Mountaineers’ win at K-State, and he was perfect on his seven extra point tries.
Staley and Legg handled all of West Virginia placekicking duties last year, but McGhee could factor in this coming season. Besides being a candidate for WVU’s punting job, McGhee also has an excellent resume as a placekicker. As a senior at Bishop Guilfoyle High, he made all 29 PATs and seven-of-eight field goals with a long of 46 yards. He also was a weapon on kickoffs, as 32 of his 48 boots went into the end zone for touchbacks, though in college the kickoff is from the 35-yard line vs. the 40 in high school.
The Mountaineers will have to find a holder for whoever does the placekicks. Growden handled those duties last year, but he’s graduated. In addition, backup quarterbacks Jack Allison and Trey Lowe each worked as holders in practice in 2019, but both have since left WVU as transfers, so West Virginia is searching for new set of holders.
Long snappers – Rex Sunahara was rock-solid as West Virginia’s long snapper the past two seasons, but the son of WVU’s volleyball coach has graduated. Many NFL draft observers believe Sunahara has a very good chance of earning a spot on a pro team next year, but wherever he ends up, the Mountaineer football team is left searching for his replacement.
Kyle Poland (6-2, 232 lbs., Sr.) and J.P. Hadley (6-2, 245 lbs., Soph.) are the two long snappers left on WVU’s roster who will compete to replace Sunahara. Neither has much game experience. Poland got an opportunity to snap against Baylor in the blowout of the Bears in 2018, while Hadley has yet to take the field during a game. West Virginia’s coaches have indicated that both, who each arrived at WVU as walk-ons, are very capable and have proved themselves in practice. Now it’s just a matter of carrying that performance over to the bright lights.
Returners – Sam James (Soph.) Alec Sinkfield (Jr.), Winston Wright (Soph.)
West Virginia’s kickoff return phase showed some promise in 2019, as five of those were brought back for more than 25 yards, including a 95-yarder for a TD by Winston Wright (5-10, 167 lbs., Soph.) at Baylor.
Alec Sinkfield (5-9, 188 lbs., Jr.) and Sam James (6-0, 182 lbs., Soph.) also helped return kickoffs, and each had two for 25+. As a team WVU was fourth in the Big 12 in kickoff return average at 20.5 per. All three of the Mountaineers’ primary kickoff returners are eligible to return this coming season, so the expectation is for further improvement.
WVU definitely wants to see improvement in its punt returns as well, since that area didn’t produce much in ’19. Sinkfield handled most of West Virginia’s punt returns, and he averaged 4.2 yards on his nine tries. His longest return of the year was a 16-yarder against Kansas, but other than that, he never brought one back further than seven yards. As a team, the Mountaineers’ punt return average of 4.6 yards per attempt was ninth in the Big 12, as only Texas (4.1) was below WVU.