Doing his Level best
MORGANTOWN - Had Cecil Level not made the decision he did in 2010, his college football career would be in his rear-view mirror, and it's likely that the memories would not be fond ones.
He would have completed four years in a program so anonymous and struggling that by the time he was a senior the school would be ready to disband it. There are probably a lot of former WVU Tech players who feel some regret.
Instead, Level transferred out of Montgomery after two years, used his redshirt season to satisfy NCAA residency requirements and became a bit of a special teams star last fall as a walk-on at West Virginia.
Now, with a year remaining, he's even on scholarship at the Division I level, having been awarded that over the weekend as the Mountaineers broke their preseason camp.
"Yes sir,'' Level said. "I think I made the right decision.''
It was certainly the right decision as far as WVU is concerned.
Level goes into his senior season - it begins a week from Saturday when West Virginia hosts Marshall - still struggling to make a mark defensively as a cornerback. Despite a lack of depth at the position, there's a possibility that he won't have much of an impact there, although on the depth chart the school released Monday he was listed No. 2.
But on special teams there is perhaps no one more valuable than the 5-foot-10, 186-pounder from Fayetteville, Ga. His play there, particularly on the kickoff coverage team, is the reason he was awarded a scholarship.
Not bad for a guy who had never really played special teams before except on occasion in high school in Georgia.
"I didn't play any special teams at Tech, just defense,'' Level said. "That was really my first year, but I picked it up pretty quickly. Everything kind of slowed down and I was able to make plays on kickoffs, punts, punt returns, kickoff returns. I just tried to do whatever I could.''
If Level's contributions need some sort of context, here might be the best example. In last year's game against Marshall, Tavon Austin returned a kickoff 100 yards for a game-changing touchdown, averaged 15.3 yards on three punt returns and was named the Big East's special teams player of the week.
But it was Level - playing his first game at the Division I level and his first after a year off - who was named the team's special teams champion, so disruptive was he on the kickoff coverage team.
"He was about 15 yards ahead of everybody else,'' coach Dana Holgorsen said at the time. "He was clearly playing at a different level.''
To some, special teams play requires a different mindset. The game is so fast and so reckless that the NCAA this year took further steps to control the mayhem. Kickoffs this season will come from the 35-yard line instead of the 30, touchbacks on kickoffs will be brought out to the 25 instead of the 20, and those lining up on kickoff coverage can do so no more than 5 yards from the kickoff yard line, reducing their acceleration.
All of the rules are designed to make kickoffs safer by encouraging touchbacks and slowing down the speed of the play.
Level, though, doesn't go into kickoffs with a reckless mindset. Instead, he said he does so with pride.
"No, you don't have to have a special mentality. You just have to take pride in it,'' Level said. "Even though it's just special teams, it still counts.
"I think [my success was] just because I felt pride in it. When I first came here everybody talked about taking pride in Mountaineer football. I do.''
Becoming a special teams star wasn't what Level had in mind when he transferred to try his hand at college football at the highest level.
"I think it just happened,'' Level said. "I didn't think it was going to be like that.''
Now his goal is to do more than just play special teams.
"I still play a lot of special teams, but this year I'm trying to play more defensively,'' Level said. "I just want to help out any way I can.''
How much of a factor he plays on defense remains to be seen. He's not going to crack the starting lineup ahead of Pat Miller and Brodrick Jenkins, and there are a host of new or relatively new faces competing for playing time behind them.
Then again, no one gave him much of a chance to contribute the way he did a year ago, either. And Level thinks he's making progress.
"I think I am,'' he said. "We're all competing hard just to make everybody better.''
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.