By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
In hindsight, it sounds strange, the thoughts Tyler Bitancurt had going into January’s Orange Bowl meeting with Clemson.
He found himself on edge, worried, wondering if in the end this game that would finish up 70-33 would fall on his shoulders or, to be more correct, on his toes.
“If you remember the bowl season, almost every game was coming down to the kicker,” the West Virginia University placekicker said Tuesday morning at the Puskar Center. “Going into the Orange Bowl, I had the pressure of a big-time bowl game, going against a big-time team in Clemson and looking like it might come down to having to kick a game-winner.”
Not that he hadn’t had experience in that area. He wrote his name into WVU football lore when he beat arch-rival Pitt with a last-second field goal as a sophomore, gaining a measure of revenge for the upset they sprang on the Mountaineers a couple of seasons earlier to keep them out of a national championship game.
And then last year WVU got into the Orange Bowl when Bitancurt kicked a 28-yard field goal as time expired to beat South Florida, 30-27.
All things considered, however, Bitancurt isn’t looking to be a hero.
“Absolutely not. If it comes, you have to be prepared for it, but I don’t think any kicker wants to have it come down on them. We want the team to win straight up,” he said.
So it was that kicking 10 extra points in one game was fine with him, something he would take in every game, even though it did wear him down by the time the evening had ended.
“Yeah, my leg got tired. I can’t lie; in the Orange Bowl. I got tired. I kicked 10 extra points and some kickoffs on top of that,” he said.
It isn’t simply the physical work of kicking the extra point that makes you tired, though.
“What makes you more tired is mentally. Every time the offense has the ball, I’m mentally kicking field goals,” he explained. “You do more mental reps. You always make your mental reps. If you are ready to go on the field and already have visualized the kick going through, it will help your consistency”
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Believe it or not, Corey Smith was tired, too, at the end of the Orange Bowl, and he is the punter.
Oh, yeah, he also kicks off, or at least shared those duties with Bitancurt.
“It’s just trying to stay ready and warmed up,” Smith answered when asked about being tired in the Orange Bowl. “You never know when you might go in. We didn’t worry too much about punting, but we still have to be ready. Am I going to have to punt? Am I going to have to go in and kick off. It’s all dictated by what happens on the field.”
So, he continues to warm up during the game, that after coming out an hour and a half before the game and then having a long halftime break at the Orange Bowl.
“That took a toll on our bodies,” Smith said.
Smith’s season as a punter was an inconsistent one last year, finishing averaging 39.7 yards per put punt as a junior while also doing a lot of the kicking off.
“It was a season of ups and downs,” he said. “I started off the season well. It got to a low point in the middle of the season. I was able to rebound, although I don’t think the Orange Bowl was my best game by any means.”
This year he is looking to erase the highs and the lows.
“Consistency is the key. I’m going to put more emphasis on the mental side of it. The key is consistency. You can’t have a 50-yard punt and a 30-yard punt. You want 45 consistently, and then if you hit one really good, that’s great,” he said.
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To that end both Bitancurt and Smith have a new special teams coach in Joe DeForest, a master of the special teams.
At Oklahoma State, he ran the special teams for 11 years. and their play was known as the best in the Big 12 and among the nation’s best.
He remembers early in his career, when he left Rice for Duke in 1994, he sat around the staff table when his head coach Fred Goldsmith turned to him and said, “Joe, you’re the special teams coordinator.”
“That was it,” he said. “I had snapped in college, snapped for a short time in the NFL. I knew snapping, but I self-taught myself how to teach kickers and punters by watching and listening to kids.”
And what he tries to do is really pretty simple.
“You have those kids believe in how important special teams are and how that can win ball games and championships for you,” he said.
He seems after spring practice and almost a week of summer drills to be working his magic with Bitancurt and Smith.
“I like the way DeForest has been working with us,” Bitancurt said. “He’s getting us more engaged, giving us more to do. In addition to working on our own, we have a plan every day. We have book where we fill out charts and stuff. That’s helping us.”
“Coach DeForest tells us it’s one play and out. We have one play, and we have to be perfect. It isn’t like other parts of the game might have an eight-play drive. We might only get six to 10 plays a game, and they better all be perfect. There’s a magnification aspect of it,” Smith said.
“I meet with them every day and I have 15 minutes of individual work with them every day,” DeForest said.
“Going back to the spring, all I did was get to know them and their technique because every kicker and every snapper is different. I just would be asking them why are you doing this and why are you doing that. Every kicker’s steps are different; their plant is different.
“Now my job is to watch what I learned and make sure I’m on point and helping them with technique, visual and mental.”
“He doesn’t really try to change us a lot,” Smith said. “He came in and said he wants to learn us and let us learn him. He said he doesn’t want to completely overhaul anybody. We have a laid-back atmosphere, but we know how to get work done. It’s another set of eyes, and that’s huge.”
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.