By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
A year ago, Joe DeForest was defenseless, which is an often fatal malady when your job title is defensive coordinator.
He had taken over the West Virginia University job after Jeff Casteel left to rejoin Rich Rodriguez in Arizona and took a couple of long-standing Mountaineer assistants with him, including the cigar-chomping defensive line coach of 30 years, Bill Kirelawich.
To say it didn’t work out for DeForest is an understatement of mammoth proportions, the WVU defense becoming the worst in West Virginia history, which was probably a statement in part about DeForest’s coaching as a first-year defensive coordinator but equally as much about the offenses he was facing in the Big 12.
It didn’t take Dana Holgorsen, the head coach, long to realize that a change was in order, and so it was that DeForest was replaced, but not dismissed. Instead, Holgorsen, who long had been preaching DeForest’s ability to coach special teams, turned him into one of the few full-time special-teams coordinators in college football, and if the first week of the season was an indicator, it was a move destined to work.
Special teams play was markedly improved over a season ago, complete with a punter in Nick O’Toole who appears capable of turning fourth down into a moment of opportunity after having watched it become something of a comedy over the past couple of years.
The presence of O’Toole, a junior college player who came in with three years eligibility left, offered some insight into why DeForest has had success with special teams.
“I’ve signed probably 12 guys in my career out of Chris Sayler’s Kicking Academy in California and Vegas,” he explained, referring to the academy where O’Toole learned to punt. “I called him after the year was over and he gave me like three or four names, and I did my research.”
The research pointed toward O’Toole, in part because he had those three years left, but also because of his physical assets.
“I love his length. I love tall punters … and I love the ability he has,” DeForest said.
And so he brought him in, and he averaged 50.6 yards a punt in last Saturday’s 24-17 win over William & Mary, didn’t have to revert to a roll, rugby style punt, and brought something to the team off the field.
“He walks into the room and everything lights up. Everyone likes the guy. He’s not what you call a ‘flaky’ specialist. He’s not. He’s a normal guy who has fun and is level-headed,” DeForest said.
That is certainly different, for specialists such as the former kicker Pat McAfee, now with the Indianapolis Colts, are normally known for their abnormalities.
But special teams are more than just punting. They are kickoffs and kickoff returns and punt returns and field goals, and there is much promise there, although DeForest’s special teams have been hit especially hard by injuries.
First, Nana Kyeremeh went down with a season-ending shoulder injury, then Shaq Petteway was lost to knee surgery and this last game Dozie Ezemma saw his WVU football career end with a broken leg and foot.
Each played a huge role on special teams, Kyeremeh and Ezemma playing on three of them and Petteway on all four. It will take two guys to fill in Kyeremer’s spots, two to fill Ezema’s and maybe four to fill Petteway’s.
“You don’t cover it up. You move on, but unfortunately the next guy is a young guy and he has to learn on the run. Hopefully the live bullets he gets out there will make him better,” DeForest said.
This becomes crucial this week because Oklahoma’s punt returner, Jalen Saunders is one of the nation’s best, a threat to break one at any more.
“He’s a different kind of animal,” DeForest said. “He’s a cheetah.”
And cheetahs run pretty fast when they get loose, but DeForest’s job is to see that doesn’t happen.
He has the proper background to call upon to devise some kind of coverage that works, having started working with special teams back in the mid-1990s when he went from Rice to Duke as a young assistant.
Email Bob Hertzel at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.