MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Despite their importance, football special teams are often the last units to be fully selected and assembled as teams prepare for upcoming seasons.
That’s not because coaches downplay them, or don’t believe they are a major part of the game. Far from it. It’s simply that due to their nature, makeup and the risk of injury in practicing them at full bore, identifying those who will man all of the positions – not just the specialists – typically stretches through the spring and well into fall camp.
The challenges begin in spring practice when rosters are at their lowest numbers counts due to the fact that graduating and departing players are no longer on the practice field. A handful of newcomers – early enrollees and incoming transfers – help bolster the numbers a bit, but there simply aren’t enough players to field full special teams practice periods.
Even if there were, a second issue keeps full scale work off the schedule. Many newcomers aren’t in school or on the practice field yet, and won’t get the chance to show their potential until the fall.
That doesn’t mean special teams goes by the wayside in the spring. West Virginia, in fact, put a renewed emphasis on them earlier this year, conducting a number of individual and small teams sessions to identify those players who have the talent, and perhaps just as importantly, the will, to be on special teams. It was so much a part of spring that head coach Neal Brown included reps of some of the drills during the Gold-Blue Spring Game – a strong indicator of the importance he places on improving that aspect of play.
“We put so much emphasis on that drill work and competition work in the spring, and we had live competitions. It was intense,” special teams coordinator Jeff Koonz said of the first stage of building the special teams.
One of the many points of emphasis in the search for talent was body control and playing in open space, with winning one-on-one battles also a primary evaluation point. Koonz also discussed tackling in today’s practice environment, noting that it can be effectively drilled even in the mostly contact-less spring and early fall.
“Eighty percent of tackling is angles, and you can work that without contact. If you watch it, a lot of missed tackles are overrunning the football. We did a non-contact drill that was as intense as any we have done during camp, and it was all about running inside out to the football and being able to get your body from full speed to an under-control position to finish a play in space. It’s proper body position, position to the ball and your eyes.”
Fast forward to fall camp, and a two-stage assembly process is playing out. The first week continued a number of the evaluation and small group drills while beginning to include some placekicking full team work. The first big scrimmage of the fall served as a demarcation point between that evaluation process and the beginning of identification of the players on each unit.
“We got some live stuff from the scrimmage, and then are coming in and saying ‘O.K., here’s where we were in the spring here’s where we are after seven days fall camp, and we start to maneuver,” Koonz explained. “The thing that I love is some of the true freshmen. We have had competition drills, and some of these guys who have been here for a month, have stood out. So now you take the guys from the spring and bring in a freshman here, a transfer here. We had some guys penciled in, but now that you see them do it against guys who have done it in games and have some success, now we can grow that depth.”
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Specialists are also continuing to battle, and the winners of those competitions also remain to be identified.
“Field goal kicking they have kind of taken turns having their day,” Koonz said of Evan Staley and Casey Legg. “We have two new guys (at long snapper, JP Hadley and Austin Brinkman) that are fighting it out and we have a heck of a competition. Consistency is key for them.”
Head coach Neal Brown noted that Tyler Sumpter, who is also a leading contender at punter, is in the mix for the placekicking job. While he prefers to have a different player handling the two spots, he isn’t averse if one player wins the competition for both.
So what happens if a race is too close to call? That doesn’t happen, said Koonz, pointing to the meticulous tracking of every repetition.
“We are going to make sure there is a determining factor,” he said, speaking of the battle at snapper but outlining the process that occurs for every specialist. “We chart everything. The precise location. The time. There’s going to be a difference. They are being put in those situations, tracking the location the velocity, both in pressure situations and normal practice. You do that over two weeks and you will find a winner.”