MORGANTOWN -- They don't get the same attention as West Virginia's high-scoring offense or its rapidly improving defense, but the Mountaineers' special teams have finally begun to put a smile on Dana Holgorsen's face.
Well, at least a little bit of a smile.
"I feel pretty good about it, all but pretty much the one game,'' West Virginia's head coach said, that one game being a loss to LSU. "But that's a big part of why LSU is No. 1 in the country. ... It exposed some of the things we needed to continue to get better at, which we have.''
Indeed, from the opening game of the season, when Marshall's Andre Booker returned a punt 87 yards for a touchdown, through that LSU game three weeks later, when Morris Claiborne reversed the momentum with a 99-yard kickoff return, West Virginia's special teams were a hit-and-miss proposition.
But since that time, the Mountaineers have done things a lot better. There have been no more long returns, the punting game is improving and the returns are OK. The field goal unit, with Tyler Bitancurt being 11-for-12, has been solid.
"The only real negatives that we've seen have been the kickoff return (coverage),'' Holgorsen said. "But we've kicked off a bunch and we've rotated a bunch of people in there to the point where I think we've finally got some guys who will strain their bodies to get to the ball.''
It has been just one game, but changing punters seems to have helped that phase of the game dramatically. Walk-on Mike Molinari, who also serves as Bitancurt's holder, replaced Corey Smith against Connecticut and averaged 43 yards per kick, putting three inside the 20-yard line. Connecticut returned three of his five punts, but for just 8 yards total.
Again, though, it was just one game. Smith's first game was great, too, when he punted twice for a 50-yard average against Marshall. So while the job is Molinari's now, it's always open to competition should he stumble.
"Corey had the job in the beginning and wasn't very consistent, so we replaced him,'' Holgorsen said. "He's no different than any other person on the team. If they're not doing their job and we have somebody else to put in there behind them, we're going to do it. And we're proud of how he got in there and got it done.''
While Molinari will continue to punt, Smith won't be idle. He also began the season as the kickoff specialist and was replaced several times the last two games by Bitancurt.
But Smith still handled most of the kickoffs against Connecticut and he's likely to continue splitting time there with Bitancurt.
As for Bitancurt, he missed a 35-yard attempt against Norfolk State, but hasn't erred in nine attempts since then. If he and Molinari continue kicking and punting as they have, that should stabilize a lot of things on the special teams.
"We're pleasantly surprised with how Molinari punted. And the PAT-field goal unit is something that people were complaining about, and that has probably been the most consistent on the team,'' Holgorsen said. "Special teams-wise, we got exposed in one game. Other than that, I think it's been a winning performance."