West Virginia Football’s Biggest Questions In 2019: No. 7 – The Return Game
(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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7: The Return Game – West Virginia’s punt and kickoff returns have ranged from cover-your-eyes awful to average over the past few years, and some of that may have been due to the emphasis, or lack thereof, placed on those items by previous head coach Dana Holgorsen. Asked prior to the 2018 season if he was happy with the improvement his punt return unit had made in catching the ball, and if that meant more emphasis could be placed on gaining more yards afterward, he replied “That’s about number 1000 on the list of things I’m worried about.”
That attitude might have carried over to the coaching of that play phase, as WVU finished 104th out of 129 teams in 2018 with an average of 5.64 yards per put return. Only 11 teams had fewer punt return attempts than the Mountaineers, who followed the directive to just catch the ball and turn it over to the offense. Kickoff returns were similarly unproductive, averaging only 17.71 yards (114th nationally).
Without question, West Virginia’s first-year head coach Neal Brown and his new staff have hundreds of items to address as they reshape the program, but special teams are one vehicle that can show quick results if buy-in is achieved – something that was questionable from the top down over the past few years.
The players returning the ball are the natural focus of the return game, just as skill position players are when the offense takes the field, but they are only part of the equation. We’ll look at those first, but then touch on what might be the real key to success in gaining yards off the foot of the opposition.
Brown and his staff had a number of players catching punts and kickoffs during the spring as the search for players with the abilities to succeed at each of those different spots commenced. Punt return, requiring quick adjustments, sure hands and the ability to make opponents in coverage miss, saw wide receivers T.J. Simmons and Isaiah Esdale, as well as defensive back Keith Washington, in the practice line. Others, including defensive back Kwantel Raines as well as some newcomers, could also get looks as the punt return team is assembled.
Kickoff return, requiring more measured reading of blocks, saw Tevin Bush, Alec Sinkfield, Sam James and Kennedy McKoy among those making tryout bids. This is one place where WVU’s deep group of running backs could have a definite impact as the coaching staff figures out ways to get maximum contributions from the foursome.
The biggest question for the returners – do any have the wiggle to make opponents miss, and the reading and cutting ability to work around blockers and coverage foes? With wedge and tandem blocking all but outlawed in the return game now, broken-field running and quick decision making are becoming as much, if not more important, than raw speed.
That leads to the second factor of returns – the blocking of the other nine or 10 players not involved as returners. WVU has, quite simply, not been very good in this blocking aspect in recent years, and that means a fair share of blame for the poor return numbers falls in that direction. This, then, becomes an almost total rebuild – one of many – for the coaching staff. Finding players who can run and move in space, locate opponents and lock them up to provide space for the returner is important. It’s also a skill that is much harder than it sounds – partly due to mindset. Linebackers and big safeties have the strength and quickness, but do they have the ability to execute blocks, not shed them as is their primary task? Tight ends and bigger receivers are also natural selections for the task, but again, numbers are the concern.
Finally, there’s the matter of synergy. Perhaps more than any other group on the team, kick return units are greater than the sum of their parts. Sometimes, it’s the way the players fit together – their ability to communicate, jump from one block to another at the right time or steer their opponents just enough off course – that makes them special. Add in a talented return man, and magic can ensue.
Compare, for example, WVU’s all-time kickoff yardage leader, Tavon Austin (2,407 yards, 4 TDs), with the stellar duo of Nate and Shawn Terry, who ruled WVU’s return game at the turn of the century with a combined 3,149 kickoff return yards and seven scores. Austin did it all with his unworldly quick-twitch running style. The Terrys, however, didn’t have that one signature standout physical ability. What they did have, in addition to their own ability to read coverages, were excellent blockers in front of them – players who made the right decisions and saw everything come together on returns time and again. The Terrys did the rest, hitting gaps and working off blocks at just the right times. Watching it all unfold was a lesson in choreography.
Can West Virginia find at least a little bit of that magic in 2019? With so many other questions surrounding this team offensively, a positive answer here – and a few more yards than the former coach was interested in – could help a great deal.
Previously In The Series