West Virginia Football’s Biggest Questions In 2019: No. 6 – Punting
(Editor’s Note – In our series of stories over the next few weeks, we’re going to take a look at each of West Virginia’s top 10 question marks heading into the 2019 football season. After that, we’ll also look at what we consider to be the top 10 strengths of Neal Brown’s first Mountaineer squad.)
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6: Punting – How solid was West Virginia’s punting game in the hands – or rather, on the foot – of Billy Kinney over the last three seasons? So much so that he didn’t get a lot of mention, which might be the biggest compliment for a specialist. The Morgantown native averaged between 40.9 and 41.7 yards per punt from 2016-18, forcing 68 fair catches and dropping 52 boots inside the 20-yard line while suffering only 12 touchbacks. His graduation leaves a massive, yet unnoticed, hole in the Mountaineer lineup. The race to fill that gap will be overshadowed by several other position battles and competitions this fall, but it’s one that should not be ignored, with at least four contestants vying for the first team job.
Redshirt freshman Evan Matthes (6-1, 215 lbs.) is the lone returnee from last year’s roster, and hopes to parlay a year’s experience in the program. Matthes did not see game action in 2018. Joining Matthes in the battle are three true freshmen, making the position the youngest on the Mountaineer team.
Pennsylvanian Kolton McGhee (6-0, 175 lbs.) is assumed to have a bit of an inside track on the job, as he is the only scholarship player at the position. McGhee earned the offer after displaying talent as both a punter and a placekicker, but he, like everyone else in this derby, will have to show he can produce under pressure on the field.
WVU also added a pair of walk-ons in the class, as Towson, Maryland, native Leighton Bechdel (5-11, 180 lbs.) and Richmond Hill, Georgia product Matt Daniel (5-11, 175 lbs.) enrolled at WVU for the July summer session. Bechdel was set to attend Salisbury State before accepting a preferred walk-on offer from WVU, while Daniel comes from the same high school as current Mountaineer receiver Sam James.
One interesting thing about competition among specialists is that some of it takes place away from the practice field where the rest of the team is engaged. While new head coach Neal Brown makes it a point to involve all the specialists in more practice periods than his predecessors (including some tackling drills), there’s still individual work time where all the mechanics of punting are worked upon. The catch of the snap, the all-important drop of the ball and the directional control of kicks are all vital in determining overall success, and those items aren’t ones that attract a lot of attention.
The good news is that the punters can work out individually on all those items, as well as on the full process from snap to boot, through the summer. From there, the competition will really pick up when the team reassembles in early August, with the hope that one or two will separate himself from the pack with excellence in all the areas of the punting game. Some hints as to who has a leg up in the race can be gleaned from seeing who works with the first and second punt teams during full unit work, but this is a battle that could go deep into fall camp.
One other item to watch is blocked kicks. WVU gave up one blocked punt in 2017 and two in 2018 – mistakes that it’s not going to be able to afford in 2019. The fault for blocked punts can range from a slow snap to a slow getaway to a missed block, so it’s not always on the punter, but one item that will be tracked carefully is the time it takes to get the ball away from catch to boot. That’s part of the overall operation time – and the punter who can execute it most quickly while still punting the ball effectively could have an inside track to the starting job.
Still, as West Virginia has no one in the competition who has ever punted in a college game, the questions won’t end there. The final answer – or, if things don’t work out – additional questions – won’t become evident until Saturday, Aug. 31, and the first couple of attempts in the season opener against James Madison.
Previously In The Series