Return Tactics, Punting And Personnel Highlight Fall Special Teams Work
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Veterans returning to West Virginia’s 2019 football team have had much to learn with the changes in schemes that came with new head coach Neal Brown and his staff, but they aren’t the only ones in learning mode. Coaches, specifically those dealing with kick returns in special teams play, are having to adjust to new rules that ban any wedge alignments on free kicks.
There’s a lot of verbiage to describe the new bans, but it boils down to this: blockers on return teams can’t line up side-to-side within two yards of each other on returns. If they do so and the ball is caught and returned, it’s a penalty. In recent seasons, it was illegal for three players to line up in such wedge formations, but beginning this year they are totally banned. That, in turn, has had an effect on collegiate practice fields across the country, where special teams mentors have been implementing new tactics that keep blockers separated.
“It changes your kickoff return schemes for sure. We’ve had to change our technique,” said WVU assistant coach Blake Seiler, who oversees all of the Mountaineers’ special teams work. “You have to come up with new schemes and find ways to get guys singled up one on one. I would say 80 percent of our return schemes had [a double team].”
Seiler and his brethren have been busy in implementing some changes, but he notes that he doesn’t have to throw everything out the window.
“You don’t have to change the whole scheme; you just change that block,” he explained. “Instead of it being a double team, it’s now a singled-up block. We’ve traded a lot of ideas. You can still have a two-on-one block, but you just can’t come shoulder to shoulder to attack guys.”
There’s more to unpack in that explanation. On the one hand, the return team can still try to double up on opponents at the point of attack in the return, to ensure that he’s moved out of the way or stymied. They could also stagger blockers to avoid a flag, with one perhaps arriving a beat ahead of the other. However, the players executing double teams will have to come from different angles, and not be side to side until they make contact or get very close to it. (There’s going to be a lot of judgments for officials to make on such plays.) There’s no denying, though, that such changes will have an effect on the way returns unfold, so it’s not just a simple matter of putting a blocker in two different places and saying, ‘Go get that guy.'”
“When you have a double team there’s a little bit more security, so you look for guys that have some girth to them,” said Seiler, noting that tight ends and linebackers were often employed in those types of blocks to provide more beef with which to offset the momentum of hard running members of the coverage team. “Now, one-on-one, they have to be more athletic players who can pick up those blocks in space, but now maybe they can’t stop the bull rush charges downfield. It kind of compresses your return scheme, but we have been looking at a lot of things in camp.”
That leads one to believe that a players who are a bit more mobile could populate return teams, and that is one item that plays in WVU’s favor. With a number of safety and linebacker hybrid types on the roster, finding a few who can be effective on the second and third ranks of kickoff return, or who are able to get downfield and pick up members of the coverage team, might not be a huge problem. Still, it is a change from the way returns were schemed and taught in the past, and will necessitate changes.
I assume if you are a smart coach, you are going to coach within the rules,” Seiler said with a grin, while noting it’s tough to predict just how the return game will play out this year. “There’s a lot to be determined yet. It’s going to create some new schemes.”
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West Virginia’s recent addition of another punter to the roster put a bit more emphasis on Seiler’s declaration, earlier in the day, that the punt game was a “work in progress.” Seiler was encouraged with the progress that his two freshman punters had shown since arriving on campus, but clearly the Mountaineer staff felt that another leg was needed to add more competition, not to mention proven experience, to the punting position. They got all of that in the form of Josh Growden, a senior transfer from LSU with nearly 100 game kicks to his credit.
Prior to that announcement, Seiler offered some praise of the first-year duo that had been working through the first week of practice.
“Kolton (McGhee) is a true freshman, and has had a lot of good work through fall camp. He has been impressive, and has a strong leg to him. Leighton Bechdel has done a nice job, and he’s a young promising punter.”
If, as expected, Growden wins the job for his single year in a Mountaineer uniform, it could largely depend on his ability to hang the ball up and place it precisely. That falls in line with the item in the punting game that sits at the top of Seiler’s wish list.
“We need hang time,” he said. “It has been better in fall camp than in the spring, and that has been encouraging. If you are hitting low line drives, you are trying to cover punts all the time. If you have your druthers, you want a 40-yard kick with a four-second hang time, and that should be a fair catch every single time.”
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On the opposite end of the kicking game, numbers will be whittled down over the next few practices.
“We need to get the returners down to two or three guys, and that’s a real push for the next week of fall camp,” Seiler said.
Return candidates for punt and kickoff duties include Alec Sinkfield, Tevin Bush Martell Pttaway, Keith Washington and Kennedy McKoy. Newcomers Winston Wright and Freddie Brown are also getting work, but are more likely options for future seasons.