By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
West Virginia University’s special teams have always been … eh, well … special.
In fact, historically speaking you could make a point they are among the best in college football.
Think about it.
Todd Sauerbrun was probably the best collegiate punter ever, owning a 90-yard punt (you read that right) against Nebraska in 1994, a season in which he averaged a record 48.6 yards per punt.
Placekicking wasn’t far behind that with the likes Paul Woodside, who holds the school record with a 55-yard field goal in 1984 (if you really want to be impressed, however, in 1901 a dude named Ed Kenna dropkicked a 50-yard field goal).
You want perfection, in 1970 Bill Samuelson made all 19 of his attempts and, of course, there was always Mike Vanderjagt, who went on to become the longtime placekicker for the Indianapolis Colts, who liked the West Virginia influence so much that they brought in Pat McAfee to punt.
McAfee was the best combination kicker in WVU history, ranking second all-time in punting average to Sauerbrun with 43.7 per game and first all-time in kick scoring with 384 points.
WVU not only kicked the ball well historically, but the Mountaineers made a mark when the other team was kicking, as early as 1934 when Joe Stydahar blocked seven punts, only part of the reason he went on to become the first player ever drafted by the Chicago Bears.
However, it was when kicks were returned when WVU was at its best, and perhaps never more exciting good than when Tavon Austin had the return. He ran four kickoffs back for TDs, two of them of 100 yards, and added a punt return for a TD.
Austin averaged 12.7 yards per punt return and 24.8 on kickoff returns, but it wasn’t even close to the best in WVU history.
Austin, in fact, ranks seventh in all-time kickoff return average at 24.8 behind Shawn Terry’s record 27.7, Darius Reynaud, Robert Gresham, Nate Terry, Kerry Marbury and Adam (Pacman) Jones.
The Terry brothers each returned kickoffs for touchdowns with Shawn setting a record by returning three in the 2000 season.
And as for Austin’s punt return average of 12.7, a certainly impressive average, but the school mark stands at 14.9 by John Mallory, who ran seven back for touchdowns.
All of this brings us to this season, now just 10 days away, after a year when the Mountaineers’ special teams were not nearly what they had been, save for Austin’s return game, which now belongs to the St. Louis Rams.
Coach Dana Holgorsen does not yet have it all worked out, but it appears redshirt freshman Josh Lambert will placekick. Junior college transfer Nick O’Toole and returning punter Mike Molinari will do the punting, with a battle still raging for the kickoff job.
“I’m going to brag on those guys a little bit,’’ Holgorsen said during one of his late camp interviews. “Josh Lambert is doing well. ... Our punters are booming the ball. Nick O’Toole has a strong leg. Michael Molinari has done a great job punting and has also been doing a lot of kickoff stuff. And Huey (walk-on freshman punter Houston Syvertson) is doing great as well. He might have the strongest leg of all three.’’
That’s a long way from sounding like he’s worried about his kicking game, and he also believes that the team has moved forward in snapping the ball on punts, field goals and extra points.
“John DePalma is light years ahead of where he was last year. That’s a very under-appreciated position until they’re not very good, but he looks very good,’’ Holgorsen said.
The kickoff game, however, seems troublesome.
“We just don’t have a guy that can put it in the end zone,’’ special teams coach Joe DeForest said.
“So you have to be creative.’’
As for kickoff and punt returns, Holgorsen has a locker room full of skilled players from his wide receivers, running backs and cornerbacks.
It certainly would not be surprising to see Houston transfer Charles Sims, a combo running/receiver, become a triple threat as many have been comparing his style to Austin’s, but Holgorsen will more likely look among receivers Ronald Carswell, Mario Alford, Jordan Thompson and Vernon Davis, along with freshman running back Wendell Smallwood and freshman cornerback Daryl Worley.
“We have guys that will be able to do it and look comfortable back there,’’ Holgorsen said. “It’s still up for grabs, though. We should have enough bodies to have different punt returners than we do kick returners, which is a skill I would like to develop.’’
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.