Individual Battles Set For Special Teams
In the first part of our look at special teams for the 2018 season, we focused on a whole squad look. In today’s concluding Part 2, we examine some of the individuals who could battle for playing time and help push West Virginia’s play to a higher level this season.
Redshirt sophomore Evan Staley returns after making six of his seven field goal attempts in 2017 after replacing senior Mike Molina, who suffered a career-ending injury midway through the season. Staley’s accuracy was excellent, but none of his attempts came from 40 yards or longer, as West Virginia often went for fourth-down conversions from those distances rather than attempt kicks. Will that change in 2018?
While a long-range booter isn’t an absolute necessity, it would be nice to have a kicker that can be called on from 45 or so yards out, and that sets up an interesting battle with a crowded field. Staley can certainly have improved his leg strength and range, but WVU also brought in transfer Skyler Simcox on scholarship. That fact alone shows that West Virginia’s coaches believe he can compete for the job.
There are also three walk-ons in the mix, including in-state freshman Casey Legg, Pennsylvania redshirt sophomore Sam Trapuzzano and transfer Luke Hogan. Hogan, who redshirted at Houston for one season before heading to the Mountaineer program, was an accomplished high school place kicker.
Perhaps more than any other position, kickers and punters can make significant depth chart moves in fall camp, simply because they get more reps than most other positions. In fact, it’s overwork that can be a problem, but if any kicker charts out well during their individual work, they can get a shot to show what they do in live situations. For now, though, it looks like a Staley-Simcox battle.
Fifth-year senior Billy Kinney, like Staley, was solid a year ago, but there remains a bit of room for improvement. He averaged just short of 41 yards per kick, but hang time and placement was a bit shaky at times, contributing to some of the Mountaineers’ punt coverage woes. He doesn’t have quite the crowd (or a scholarship player) pushing him, but both Hogan, who was listed as the backup on the team’s official spring depth chart, and freshman walk-on Evan Matthes from Reston, Va., will be on hand to push him.
If Gary Jennings isn’t the most underrated player on the team, Marcus Simms clearly is. WVU’s primary kickoff and punt returner, Simms was 13th nationally in the former and 36th in the latter, which combined to make him fifth in the country in combined return yardage (915). He steadied a punt return game that had made simply catching the ball an adventure in past seasons, and consistently gave the Mountaineers good field position on kickoffs, averaging 26.3 yards per runback.
Although there’s not a negative in having the same player perform both tasks, it would be good to at least have a second player who is also a threat in the kickoff game, so that opposing teams can’t kick away from Simms. Late last year, Tevin Bush was tried in that role, and he responded with three runbacks for an average of 23.3. Bush was also back on a handful of punts, but didn’t fare any better than Simms, gaining only two yards on three attempts.
David Sills could also shoulder his way into the mix in the punt return game. He was a secondary returner on a few occasions last year when the Mountaineers deployed two returners to help with field coverage and defend against rugby style kicks. He’s listed as the backup on the pre-fall depth chart, and while head coach Dana Holgorsen routinely downplays the importance of that document, it’s still something to keep an eye on.
In two seasons handling West Virginia’s snapping duties for punts and placements, Nick Meadows was nearly flawless. The Williamstown, W.Va., native has graduated, though, and now WVU must find someone new for that vital though thankless job. Rex Sunahara, a 6-foot-6 junior who is the son of Mountaineers’ volleyball coach Reed Sunahara, was the backup behind Meadows last season, though he one got an opportunity to snap in one game. Sunahara very well could step in as WVU’s main long snapper this year, though Kyle Poland, a third-year sophomore from Morgantown, has been with the team the past couple of years. In addition, true freshman J.P. Hadley figures to challenge for the job as well.