The Mountaineer football players are back, having started voluntary workouts on campus Monday.
That leads us to continue our position-by-position look at WVU’s depth chart for the upcoming season. Today we’ll focus on the Mountaineers’ specialists.
Last season, the first of the Neal Brown era, West Virginia experienced improvements in many special teams areas.
Statistically last year WVU was better in net punting (39.2 in 2019 and 37.5 in 2018) and kickoff returns (20.5 in 2019 and 17.7 in 2018), as well as kickoff coverage (net average of 41.3 in 2019, which was the best in the Big 12, and 39.4 in 2018) and punt coverage (1.4 average against in 2019 and 1.6 in 2018). The areas where West Virginia did not improve were punt returns (4.6 average in 2019 and 5.6 in 2018) and field goals (13 of 21 in 2019 and 16 of 20 in 2018).
The Mountaineers will bring back a number of those key special teams’ components from last season, but they also have a couple big shoes to fill.
Here is how we view the WVU’s depth situation among its specialists.
Anticipated starters – Evan Staley (K, Sr.), Tyler Sumpter (P, Sr., graduate transfer from Troy), Kyle Poland (LS, Sr.)
Evan Staley returns for his senior season having spent most of the past three seasons as West Virginia’s main placekicker. He’s been consistent from the beginning, having made 33-of-44 field goals and 96-of-97 extra points in his career. He did have a late season injury last year that caused him to miss three games, but when healthy, he’s handled WVU’s field goals and extra points since midway through the 2017 campaign. He figures to do so again in his last go-round with the Mountaineers.
Tyler Sumpter announced his intentions to transfer from Troy to WVU earlier this month. The 5-foot-10, 221-pound native of Hoover, Alabama, has already received his bachelor’s degree in education from Troy, so he’ll be immediately eligible at West Virginia with one season left to compete in college. Brown knows very well what he’s getting with Sumpter, having coached him from 2016-18 with the Trojans. The past three seasons, Sumpter handled all of Troy’s punting (averaging 42.2 yards in that time) and was TU’s primary placekicker the past two and a half years, making 39-of-51 field goals with a long of 50 years. Sumpter will certainly face competition, but Brown wouldn’t have brought him to West Virginia if he didn’t expect him to earn a starting job. While Sumpter could also push Staley for the placekicking duties, the expectation is that his main function at WVU will be in punting, where he averaged 45.1 yards per boot as a sophomore in 2018, his final season with Brown.
West Virginia has enjoyed excellent long snappers over the years. The most recent in that line was Rex Sunahara, but he’s now graduated, so the Mountaineers are looking for a new snapper. Kyle Poland, a 6-foot-2, 234-pound native of Morgantown, is a fifth-year senior who has been waiting in the wings for a while. He did snap against Baylor in 2018, but other than that, he has not seen game action yet. He figures to get the snapping opportunity this year, though he will have a fight on his hands to win that job.
Likely top backups – Casey Legg (K, Soph.), Kolton McGhee (P/K, RFr.), J.P. Hadley (LS, Soph.)
When Staley was injured last year, Casey Legg stepped in and did a very good job, especially considering the former high school soccer star had never actually participated in a football game prior to last season at WVU. He made 2-of-4 field goal tries in his backup role, including a critical 51-yarder in the Mountaineers’ win at Kansas State, as well as all seven PATs. With Staley back, Legg probably is again in a reserve role, though he’s now proven himself in a game situation if the need arises. He also was good on kickoffs if West Virginia wants to give Staley’s leg a rest in those situations.
A two-time all-state punter and placekicker at Bishop Guilfoyle High in Altoona, Pennsylvania, Kolton McGhee didn’t see any action last year at WVU as a true freshman and redshirted. Though he also continues to work as a placekicker at West Virginia, his quickest path to game action may be via punting, where he averaged 46.2 yards per boot as a high school senior. He figures to compete with Sumpter for that punting job this coming season.
In terms of long snapping, J.P. Hadley will likely battle Poland for the starting job. A 6-foot-2, 239-pound redshirt sophomore, Hadley hasn’t appeared in a game yet, but the Lacey, New Jersey, native seemingly has the talent to perform well if called upon.
Other key returnees – Leighton Bechdel (P, RFr.), Evan Matthes (P, Soph.)
While Tyler Sumpter and Kolton McGhee are likely the prime candidates to battle over the top punting job this season, if the Mountaineers need to look deeper, Leighton Bechdel and Evan Mattes are waiting.
A 6-foot-1, 214-pound native of Reston, Virginia, Matthes walked on to the WVU program in 2018 but hasn’t had an opportunity to punt in a game yet.
Bechdel was a lacrosse All-American at Towson (Md.) High School but decided last year to spurn offers from colleges for that sport and instead decided to walk-on at West Virginia for a chance to punt. The 6-foot, 207-pounder did not see any game action in his first season at WVU and will now look for an opportunity as a redshirt freshman.
Newcomers who could see game action this season – Danny King (P/K, Fr.), Kaulin Parris (P/K, Fr.), Austin Brinkman, LS, Fr.)
While West Virginia has some veteran specialists who likely have the upper hand at their respective jobs, there is a trio of true freshmen, who, while walk-ons, could potentially push for immediate playing time.
Danny King also played quarterback in the option attack for Fort Hill High School in Cumberland, Maryland, but it was his kicking skills, both as a punter and a placekicker, that drew a attention from colleges. He was very adept at all phases, but his quickest route to game action may be on kickoffs, where he recorded 213 touchbacks in his high school career.
Kaulin Parris, a second-team Class AA all-state placekicker for Bluefield, made 74-of-79 extra points last season. He also averaged 40 yards per punt, and that could be the area where he specializes with the Mountaineers.
Also Austin Brinkman will give WVU a young option at long snapper. A walk-on coming to West Virginia from John Carroll High School in Bel Air, Maryland, he also played quarterback and linebacker in high school, so the 6-foot-3, 210-pound Brinkman should be athletic enough cover punts.
Previously In The Series