Mark Scott, WVU Play Whack-A-Mole With Special Teams Issues
MORGANTOWN, W. Va – It’s a bit like Whack-A-Mole, the venerable arcade game where players used a soft mallet to smack furry rodents on the head when they appeared from holes. Beat one down, and the next pops up. So it has been for West Virginia’s special teams, where different problems have emerged and been addressed, only to see another immediately spring up in a different location.
Some of the issues, such as gaining yardage on punt returns (or simply catching it) have been longer running. Others, like kickoffs out of bounds or shaky coverage, have been more sporadic. But with attention toward putting the best players available on each unit, West Virginia assistant Mark Scott and the rest of the Mountaineer staff think that progress is being made.
Take, for instance, punt returns. After an abysmal 2016 and a just as shaky start to 2017, the punt return team was modified with the insertion of Marcus Simms as the primary return man. Coupled with some continuing scheme adjustments, Simms performed well, ripping off a 23-yard return on one chance and being just one block away from clear sailing on another. Unfortunately, that one block came at the head of the return, with Simms getting blasted in the head (and drawing a resulting targeting call) but a look behind that result showed some steps toward improvement.
“Coach Caponi has done a really good job with coming up with some different blocking schemes and identifying guys on the opposing team that we really need to focus on and take away their best players,” Scott said in assessing the way WVU has approached the return game this year. “It’s a different mentality. We want to be able to dictate to our opponents and not have to react as much. We want to force them to react.”
Simms is still a bit of a work in progress in terms of judging the ball in the air and making the decision on when to go for the catch and when to get away. The former is obviously much preferred, as it avoids the chance of losing more yardage as a free ball bounces down the field, but there is a dividing line as to when the risk is too great. Simms and backup Tevin Bush each had something of a sliding, diving catch on punts against ECU, and it only takes one bobble to turn a game around. The overriding policy, though, is just as it is on offense and defense — play hard, not timidly.
“We’d rather have him aggressive and going to catch the ball,” Scott confirmed. “Depending on what our call is or where we have him set, we’ll coach him up through the week on when he may not have as much help or if he’s coming up and he needs to protect himself with a fair catch.”
The encouraging signs come as a result of a twin-pronged effort on the part of the coaching staff.
“We said as a staff on day one of camp and we’ve continued to push this philosophy that we’re going to improve on special teams by doing two things, and that’s getting our best personnel on the field and paying attention to detail, coaching scheme, coaching technique and coaching effort. I think that we’ve taken steps in the right direction and we’re getting better in all of those phases,” Scott said.
With that mole at least smacked a few times and descending back into its run, another remains to be addressed — kickoffs. WVU has seen two kickoffs sail out of bounds this year, and hasn’t gotten desired placement on a couple of others. As is often the case when reviewing video dispassionately versus in the heat of the game, Scott didn’t find quite as many negatives as he did during the East Carolina contest, but knows that there are targets left for his mallet.
“Kickoff was not as bad as what I thought, but we need to be more consistent. We can’t kick the ball out of bounds. We made some personnel changes and moved some guys into different spots, and I thought it looked better,” he explained.
Scott also knows, though, that the challenge on special teams is about to increase exponentially. ECU and Delaware State will offer the softest opposition the Mountaineers see in that regard this year.
“We’ve shown improvement through the first two weeks but things aren’t going to get any easier for us as we advance into next week and into the Big 12 season. It’s just going to get more difficult. We need to continue to make it a priority, and if it’s a priority for us as a staff, then that will trickle down to the players.”