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Special-team auditions moved to Saturday?

MORGANTOWN - When Dana Holgorsen says his West Virginia football team remains a work in progress - and he says that a lot - he's not just talking about the work being done in practice.

Take special teams, for instance.

There is an argument to be made that that's the area of this football team that still needs the most work. After all, the offense has now proved it can both throw the ball and run it. The defense, while shaky at times, seems to grow a bit every week, witness those five forced turnovers and a couple of sacks Saturday against Bowling Green.

The special teams? Well, there's not been nearly enough growth there. If Holgorsen can't get it straightened out in practice, why not fiddle with it on Saturdays?

Take the Mountaineers' kickoff coverage unit, for instance. That was the group that turned the tide in West Virginia's loss to No. 1 LSU, and not in a good way. After the offense and defense began doing their part to rally from a 27-7 halftime deficit, the kickoff team shot it to pieces by giving up a touchdown return when the score was 27-21 and things were beginning to get interesting.

Well, a week later, practice had apparently not paid off. Bowling Green's Boo Boo Gates returned the opening kickoff 30 yards (although his fumble at the end of the runback pretty much negated that). But then he ran back the next kickoff 77 yards.

Holgorsen's reaction? Well, it became practice all over again. And why not?

Over the course of 10 kickoffs in that 55-10 rout, the personnel on West Virginia's kickoff team changed almost every time. Holgorsen changed the inside guys, the outside guys, even the kicker.

It seemed like as many as 15 to 18 different guys had their chance, a sort of audition in front of a live audience. In truth, it was more than that.

"You actually saw a total of about 20 new faces on the kickoff team,'' Holgorsen said. "We were firing people left and right and trying new people left and right, firing and re-hiring, replacing, moving people around.

"That's been something that we've been doing [in practice], but we did it through the course of the game due to the fact that we had a lot of opportunities. In one sense, there's nothing like live work on that unit which you can't get in practice. You have to be in a game in order to get it. Due to the fact that we had a lot of reps at it, we had a chance to get 23, 24 or 25 guys in the game at that one particular unit.''

And still there is no resolution. The Mountaineers worked on kick coverage again Sunday night when they returned to practice, and it's no clearer than it ever was.

"It's probably the same 22 [who will continue to be auditioned],'' Holgorsen said. "We probably made a few changes. We worked on it a little bit [Sunday] at three-quarters speed. We'll work it again [today] and Thursday and make decisions then. But there will more than likely be new faces on there.''

As there must be. Through five games, West Virginia ranks No. 104 in the country in kickoff coverage. That's the bad news. The good news is that only six teams in the country have kicked off more than the Mountaineers. As long as they keep scoring and kicking off so much, is that really a bad thing? And it means even more practice during games.

Unfortunately, kick coverage isn't WVU's only special-teams issue. Somehow the punt team moved up a spot in the national net-punting rankings this week, but only from dead last to next-to-last. Corey Smith punted only once, but for the second week in a row his first attempt was a 14-yard shank out of bounds that set up an opponent near midfield and led to a score.

"We worked on not shanking the ball [Sunday],'' Holgorsen deadpanned. "That's an open competition and Matt Molinari [the backup punter] will get some reps to see if he can do better than what Corey did.''

Smith's job as the kickoff guy might also be in danger. He kicked off eight times against Bowling Green, but he was one of those fired guys, too, eventually. Field goal kicker Tyler Bitancurt kicked off the last two times and was even spotted punting into the net on the sideline once.

Holgorsen, though, said it was unlikely Bitancurt - one of the special-teams bright spots with a 90 percent success rate (9-of-10) on field goals - would ever be asked to kick field goals and PATs, kick off and punt.

"That's tough to do all three. There's not many guys who can do that,'' Holgorsen said. "Tyler is doing a good job and he was our special teams player of the week. He's been solid and consistent. We had no issues whatsoever putting him on the kickoff team. He's been doing that in practice all year. But the kickoff swing and the PAT/field goal swing are similar. The punt swing is completely different. We're not going to do that at this point.''

The bottom line is that there are five significant special-teams units - kickoff, kickoff return, punt, punt return and field goal/PAT (the field goal-PAT block team is also in there, but that one is hard to judge statistically). Four have not been very good.

West Virginia's kickoff and punt teams have been atrocious. The kickoff return and punt return teams rank high (Nos. 31 and 17, respectively), but only because of two runbacks. Take away Tavon Austin's 100-yard kickoff return against Marshall and his 64-yard punt return against Norfolk State and WVU's rank in those categories would be Nos. 102 and 51, respectively. LSU pinned West Virginia inside its 20 six times because of the Mountaineers' inability to return punts.

Then again, as long as the offense keeps churning out 600-yard days and the defense forces five turnovers, it's not that critical. And the Mountaineers keep getting more practice, not during the week, but on Saturdays.

Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or dphickman1@aol.com.

 

 


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