Special-teams work now full-time gig for WVU's DeForest
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - By his estimation, Joe DeForest is one of only a dozen FBS college football assistant coaches across the country with his job description.
He's a full-time special-teams coach.
He didn't arrive in Morgantown that way, of course.
His first season was spent as West Virginia's defensive coordinator, an experiment of sorts that, to put it delicately, didn't quite go as planned. His first foray into coordinating a defense - he'd been a position coach during a long stay at Oklahoma State - may or may not have been his last, but at least for now he's been relieved of those responsibilities.
It is the hope, though, of Dana Holgorsen, the man who hired him, that he can still get his money's worth - or at least a return on the $500,000 DeForest is being paid - because regardless of what DeForest did or didn't do with WVU's defense, he is still recognized as a special-teams guru. He was also in charge of that at Oklahoma State and performed to rave reviews.
But on a full-time basis? Well, why not, both Holgorsen and DeForest argue?
"Some head coaches just don't [want to do] that,'' DeForest said. "And that's their choice.
"But most of the time you do special-teams periods first and then you send them to another field with a bag of balls and say, 'Go kick.' Well, would you do that with your corners or your receivers?''
In truth, the whole notion of special teams has morphed over the years. It hasn't been widespread and obvious like spread offenses or flexing defenses, but things have changed. There was a time when kickers and punters were almost universally walk-ons. Teams might spend a scholarship on one or the other, but seldom both.
In just the past year West Virginia has spent scholarships not only on kickers and punters, but long-snappers as well. Can holders be far behind?
Well, probably. But the point is that the jobs are too important to treat as secondary.
"I've always thought, 'What makes a kicker any less important than a right guard?''' DeForest said. "He puts points on the board, he flips field position. And what I'm excited about is I get to work with them all day.
"Not many people in the country have that luxury. There are about 12 of us in the country that do it full time. That's good for us as a program.''
So what are DeForest's tasks as West Virginia heads into its second week of fall camp? Well, finding a kicker to replace four-year starter Tyler Bitancurt is a good place to start. Of course, the fact that redshirt freshman Josh Lambert was the only place-kicker on the roster when camp opened suggests that there's really not much of a search going on.
"Yeah, but he's never kicked in a game before,'' DeForest said. "I think that says it all.''
This week, with a little bit of wiggle room in the 105-player camp limit because of the continued absence of newcomers Darrien Howard, Isaac McDonald and D'Vante Henry, DeForest brought in walk-on freshman kicker Mike Molina from Hurricane. But DeForest said that had nothing to do with Lambert's performance.
"No, I just need another kicker to save Josh's leg a little,'' DeForest said. "And I've got to identify a kickoff guy. We don't, at this point, have a guy who can kick off, which is a huge change of field position. So that concerns me.''
Punter is a little more crowded with junior college transfer Nick O'Toole, junior Mike Molinari and freshman Houston Syvertson all in camp. That job is perhaps O'Toole's to lose, but like kickers, punters are a strange breed. Coaches never really know what they're getting until the pressure is on.
But finding a kicker and a punter - or a snapper and holder - doesn't require a full-time special-teams coach. Obviously there's more to special teams than that.
So DeForest spends a lot of his time scavenging through the roster trying to find special-teams warriors, guys who can block for kicks and block kicks, cover and converge. One of his most interesting finds so far has been junior offensive lineman Michael Calicchio. He's playing as one of the protectors on the punt team, the three players who line up behind the line of scrimmage and form the final blocking shield for the punter.
Calicchio is 6-foot-9 and 325 pounds.
"Hey, you get big [players there] and [the defense is] going to run into you with big people. You just don't let them run through you. It's not rocket science,'' said DeForest, who once worked at NASA. "He takes pride in it. It's important to him. He's not going to get a lot of reps on the offensive line, so he takes pride on being a starter on punts. And that's what you're looking for.''
And that's what DeForest spends a tremendous amount of time doing - looking for those guys.
"Let's be honest, no one on this team wants to play special teams. Nobody,'' DeForest said. "You've got to convince them that it's an integral part of the game and motivate them. That's our job as coaches.''
Specifically, it's DeForest's job. That's the thing about being a full-time special-teams coach. Only half of it - perhaps less - involves X's and O's or technique. The biggest part might be identifying who has the best physical and mental qualifications to play, as well as balancing that against their roles on offense or defense. There will certainly be, for instance, defensive starters on special teams, but ideally a coach would like to find backups who will commit themselves and do the job even better because of that commitment.
"My goal is to find a third-team safety and make him the best backside tight end on kickoff returns. Give him that role,'' DeForest said as an example. "It's just like we did with Calicchio: 'Look, you're a third-team tackle. How can you contribute to this team? Be the best middle shield in the country.'
"If we can motivate kids that aren't starting on offense or defense to find a role and relish it, thrive in it, then we've accomplished what we want to get done.''
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.