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Dave Hickman: WVU return duties up for grabs

MORGANTOWN — Earlier this week, Dana Holgorsen was rather lamenting the fact that he doesn’t have a guy like Tavon Austin to return punts anymore.

It’s not that most teams have a guy like that, mind you. In fact, most teams don’t. Austin was a special talent, as his first-round draft status proved. As a rookie with the St. Louis Rams he took one back 98 yards for a touchdown. He had another that went 81 yards before he outran his only blocker and was tackled at the 2.

And that was after he returned four kickoffs and a punt for touchdowns at West Virginia.

“There are very few Tavon Austins that can make eight people miss,’’ Holgorsen said. “They don’t block a soul and he makes eight people miss and goes and scores. There are very few of those guys.’’

West Virginia probably doesn’t have one of those this year, either. Still, it’s an intriguing mix of players who seem likely to battle for the job.

The favorites? Jordan Thompson and Mario Alford. Of course, they were among the favorites last year too (along with the departed Ronald Carswell) and the Mountaineers finished 119th out of 123 FBS teams in punt return average.

So maybe sticking with the status quo isn’t the best idea.

Here’s the thing, though. It’s about more than just the guy catching the ball and trying to run with it.

“It’s not just about the return guy,’’ Holgorsen said. “You’ve got to be able to block people up front.’’

OK, so let’s make an assumption here: West Virginia’s up-front guys on the punt return team will be better this year. That’s not a guarantee, of course, but consider the Mountaineers’ depth across the board. Not all of those linebackers and safeties and, yes, even running backs are going to get on the field as much as they’d like on offense and defense. There are plenty of spots on special teams, though, and so the assumption is that a lot of fresh and talented bodies will be available.

“There have been times in the past where I’ve had to put starters in there, because those are the only capable bodies that we had,’’ Holgorsen said. “That shouldn’t be the case now.’’

OK, so if the performance of the special teams guys up front improves, that brings us back to the question of returners. (The issue exists on kickoff returns, too, where WVU was No. 112 last season, but one nasty problem at a time, please.) Namely, are Thompson and Alford the best the Mountaineers can do?

Well, that remains to be seen.

There are some interesting alternatives. Redshirt freshman Shelton Gibson is one. Quarterback William Crest? Not so much.

Yes, Crest has been fielding punts during practice. And both Lonnie Galloway, who coaches the punt returners, and special teams coordinator Joe DeForest marvel at his talent. Whether he actually gets a chance to do it for real, though, both say is a decision way above their pay grade.

The thought here is that it’s a non-starter. If Holgorsen values Crest as a quarterback as much as it appears he does, he’s not likely to make him special teams fodder. The guess here is that fielding punts in practice helps with balls skills and speed-of-the-game stuff, so why not throw him out there?

No, the real question probably centers on Thompson and Alford and perhaps Gibson. Gibson is the unknown and will continue to be during largely closed practices. Alford and Thompson are known quantities, although the real issues with them aren’t their known qualities as much as their perceived shortcomings.

In short, Thompson is the dependable guy who will catch everything, but might not do anything with it after that. Alford has more potential to do something, but only if he catches it. That was a problem when he tried to field his only punt last season at Oklahoma, fumbled and turned the game around. He was given other chances on kickoffs — and averaged a team-best 20.8 yards — but never again on punts.

This year, Holgorsen and DeForest rave about Alford’s increased confidence, which could translate into more dependability catching the ball and then he’d be able to do something with it. On the other hand, Thompson is likely just as dependable catching punts, but now is convinced he can actually do something with them after the catch.

“In my mind, I’m breaking them,’’ Thompson said. “I visualize breaking them. In my mind I have something to prove and I plan on doing it.’’

No matter who gets the opportunity, succeeding will be important. They don’t have to be perfect, but they do have to be competent or have explosive potential. Remember, Austin had an infuriating habit of letting punts drop and roll, but he didn’t generally fumble and made up for any deficiencies by getting big chunks of yardage when he did catch it.

West Virginia’s offense should be improved this season, but starting in the spots given to them by the nation’s 119th-ranked punt return unit and 112th-rated kickoff return team is a handicap the Mountaineers don’t need again.

Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or dphickman1@aol.com or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.


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