By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
In the course of world events, a shanked punt really isn’t much of a dilemma, unless you are the punter who shanked it.
That’s what Corey Smith learned last year.
He understands that in a world where there is an uproar over the shooting of Trayvon Martin in Florida, where a soldier in Afghanistan allegedly goes out and guns down 17 innocent civilians, where the price of gasoline is far higher than the price of beer, thank goodness, his problems aren’t going to make the national news.
Unless you happen to be watching ESPN.
That’s when you see yourself shanking the punt. You and 6 million or so others.
A year ago, Smith was West Virginia University’s punter, but they had to give him the boot, so to speak, because of his inconsistencies.
“A roller coaster is a good description,” he said when asked to describe the 2011 season. “Everyone says it, but it really is. You have the highest highs you can have and the lowest lows. It definitely was a roller coaster.”
Coaches and players hate that worse than just being bad, because you are haunted by the bad performances, knowing how talented you really are.
If you’re just not good enough, you can accept that. But when you know you are good enough and not reaching that potential, that’s what eats away at your insides.
It reached the point that he lost his job last year.
Mike Molinari wound up with the start against Pittsburgh, but a pair of punts that traveled less than 30 yards frustrated coach Dana Holgorsen to the point he yanked Molinari right there, calling on Smith, who responded with one of his best performances.
On four punts he averaged 54.7 yards with a long of 62, and he did it in difficult circumstances.
When he first entered the game in the second quarter, WVU was down, 14-0, to their arch rival, back on their own 25. He unleashed a 57-yard bomb that, with a penalty against the Panthers, changed the game, putting them at their own 10.
Unable to get a first down, they punted, and two plays later West Virginia had a touchdown.
Then, now trailing 20-14 with six minutes left in the third quarter, Smith changed the outcome of the game, unleashing his 62-yard punt to the Pitt 2. When the Panthers couldn’t get out of the hole, they punted and WVU began its comeback to win, 21-20.
The next week against South Florida, the roller coaster was down in another valley, Smith averaging 32 yards a punt, but the Mountaineers survived, sending them to the Orange Bowl.
Smith had to re-win his job entering the Orange Bowl and did so, rising to the occasion once more as he punted five times and, while averaging just 35 yards, laid one dead at the 4 and gave up no yards in returns.
“The highs definitely were the Pitt game and the Orange Bowl,” he said.
And the lows?
“I learned a lot about my resiliency last year, I guess,” Smith said. “I had a lot of ups and downs, but I was able to take positives from it. There were times in the season I was down, but I had to push through it and it paid off for me.”
Now, in spring drills, which are on a week’s hiatus for spring break, he is working on consistency, and Holgorsen says that’s exactly what he has shown.
The highs, of course, are easy to take, but the lows really work on you.
“It’s big for your mental aspects,” Smith said. “Most of us are pretty strong mentally, but once you go through a tough stretch it gets hard. It just shows if you stay with it things will work out.”
What was making it really hard was that they were without a real special teams coach. This year Holgorsen has added Joe DeForest, something of a special teams specialist, and it has helped.
“It’s hard (not having a coach),” Smith said. “We all watch each other and know what we do, but it’s still hard for us. Coach DeForest being here has been a big help. He sees stuff that, yes, we know, but not every day we would see.”
One difference is there is much more film of their efforts in practice.
“We are able to analyze more film every day. He knows what he’s doing. He’s been very successful everywhere he’s been. I think he will be very helpful,” Smith said.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.