Neal Brown has put a lot of emphasis on improving the Mountaineers’ special teams in his first two seasons as WVU’s head coach, but to this point that emphasis hasn’t paid huge dividends.
Admittedly West Virginia’s special teams are better now than they were in the Dana Holgorsen era, but it’s only been baby steps so far.
Kickoff and punt coverage – Other than a couple of instances, West Virginia’s coverage teams were very good this past season.
WVU did give up a 92-yard touchdown kickoff return against Kansas, and they also allowed a 42-yard kickoff return to Kansas State. Other than that, though, West Virginia didn’t give up a kickoff return longer than 27 yards this past season. The longest punt return WVU allowed in 2020 was nine yards.
The Mountaineers gave up 0.7 yards per punt return this past year, which was the third best mark in the Big 12. They also allowed 19.0 yards per kickoff return, which was especially impressive because they rarely got a break on a kickoff. WVU had a Big 12-low seven touchbacks on its 52 kickoffs (something that qualifies for the “bad” category), so the coverage unit rarely got a rest on a kickoff.
West Virginia wasn’t necessarily bad in those areas at the end of Holgorsen’s tenure, allowing 1.6 yards per punt return and 19.3 yards per punt return, but it has improved in each under Brown.
WVU’s kickoff coverage unit was No. 1 in the Big 12 in 2019 (net average of 41.3 ypk) and No. 2 this past season (40.5 ypk).
Net punting – Like 2019, West Virginia didn’t have the Big 12’s best overall punting average this season (40.3 ypp, 5th in the Big 12), but Brown’s emphasis on coverage, hang time and punt placement allowed WVU to finish third in the league in net punting. Its net punt average of 38.8 ypp was just a shade behind No. 1 Kansas State (39.2 ypp) and TCU (38.9 ypp).
WVU punters, Tyler Sumpter and Kolton McGhee, combined for just two touchbacks the entire season and 24 of their 46 boots were fair caught, negating return opportunities.
Kickoff and punt returns – While West Virginia was typically OK when it came to kickoff returns under Holgorsen, its punt returns were a non-factor. It finished in the bottom two in the Big 12 in Hoolgorsen’s last two seasons in Morgantown.
WVU still hasn’t been great in terms of punt returns in Holgorsen’s two last seasons, but it is better. After averaging 4.6 yards per punt return in 2019, it improved to 5.0 in 2020, which was good enough for seventh. That’s an improvement over the recent past, but it still has a long way to go before it can be considered good.
The same is true for the Mountaineers’ kickoff returns, where their average of 20.0 per attempt was seventh in the Big 12 this past season.
Brown is hoping for some big plays from his return teams to help jump start his offense, but so far his units haven’t provided such explosive moments.
Use of multiple punter/kickers – Whether it was because of injuries or poor performance, WVU was forced to use multiple punters and placekickers this past season.
Certainly a coach would rather settle on one specialist who is very good at his job and stick with that person throughout the campaign.
Brown didn’t have that luxury, though.
At placekicker, Evan Staley (6 of 9 on FGs) performed most of the work through the first six games, but then he suffered a knee injury trying to make a tackle on a kickoff against Kansas State and was out for the rest of the season. Casey Legg (5 of 7 on FGs) took over for Staley after that, but he had some late-season struggles and ultimately was replaced by Tyler Sumpter (3 of 4 on FGs).
All were OK, combining to convert 14 of 20 field goals. That 70% conversion rate was sixth in the Big 12.
WVU also used two punters. Sumpter handled 37 of the attempts and averaged 40.5 yards per try, but he gave way to Kolton McGhee (39.7 ypp) for a few midseason games as Brown was searching for more consistency.
In the end, none of West Virginia’s placekickers or punters were bad, but the consistency would likely have been better if the Mountaineers could have just settled in with one guy for each.