By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
To date, West Virginia University’s special teams play has been little better than a kick in the rear end to West Virginia fans, but coach Dana Holgorsen believes that may be changing.
Considering that nothing less than a BCS bid is on the line this week when the Mountaineers play the 104th renewal of the Backyard Brawl, that is almost as good a news flash as it would be that they discovered that Chris Neild, Robert Sands, J.T. Thomas, Pat White and Steve Slaton each had one more game of eligibility left.
Considering how really far this edition of the Mountaineers is away from being a great team — no running game and an often leaky defense being at the head of the list — perhaps the area that has really caused the most concern has been special teams.
Now let us understand, it hasn’t been a total breakdown. As long as the Mountaineers can put Tavon Austin deep to stand under punts and kickoffs, a touchdown is only a missed tackle by the opponent away.
The problem is that special teams is a complex web of varying skills, from kickoff to placekicking to punting to coverage to a return game, one that coaches maintain carries as important a game-winning and game-losing value as does offense and defense.
In fact, and this observer has been through this before with coaches and administrators, it is so important that it deserves a position coach of its own ... even with the limit of nine coaches, considering that dealing with it A.) takes away time from the position coaches who must work with it, and B.) it is as complicated as running and offense and defense involving skills with which these coaches are unfamiliar.
Far better to have an expert on punting the ball, on kickoff coverage, on field goal technique than two quarterback coaches, which is what WVU has at present, which is a 1-to-1 ratio with quarterbacks.
But as we said, Holgorsen believes he has seen progress in an area where the Mountaineers are last in the Big East in net punting and last in kickoff coverage, giving up 1,441 yards of kickoff returns.
“That’s the thing about special teams: If it doesn’t look good, everybody complains about it, but if it looks like it’s supposed to look, everybody ignores it,” Holgorsen maintained at a recent press conference.
He was talking about the kickoff team and how everyone held their breath on each but now that it has improved, it goes unnoticed ... except by him.
“Give those guys credit,” he said after the Cincinnati game. “The effort was good, and we played well. We had guys step up.”
Now let us say there was sizeable ground to make up, considering that punt return coverage ranks 109th in the nation at present and kickoff return coverage ranks 102nd ... and that is after Holgorsen noticed the improvement.
The Charleston Daily Mail last week did make note that over the past three games the kickoff return team has allowed
only 19.67 yards per return, which would rank 31st in the nation if it were to have been matched in the first seven games.
The improvement in coverage is part of a general learning curve for some of the second- and third-team players who are on special teams.
The players he singled out on the kickoff coverage team were wide receiver Willie Milhouse, linebacker Donovan Miles and cornerback Brodrick Jenkins, each looking for ways to contribute while not yet having earned starting jobs at their positions.
“That’s one of the things that I’ve been trying to get through to them all year,” Holgorsen said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re on the scout team or a second-teamer, third-teamer, whether you’re a receiver or a running back, safety, linebacker or whatever you are, you have to give effort. Some of those second-teamers didn’t do anything to help the team, so we had other guys step up, which was critical.”
And rest assured that the same will be true with punter Mike Molinari, placekicker Tyler Bitancurt and kickoff man Corey Smith. Far too often has the special teams played a huge role in the Backyard Brawl.
You can go back to 1967 when WVU placekicker Ken Juskowich accounted for all the points in a 15-0 victory or to 1975 when walk-on kicker Bill McKenzie’s last-second field goal produced a 17-14 WVU victory and one of the wildest post-game celebrations ever at old Mountaineer Field.
Sometimes teams have won by the foot, other times they lost by it, WVU falling 16-13 in 1982 when Paul Woodside’s long field goal try hit the crossbar but would not go through.
How vital is placekicking? Well, Pitt’s comeback from 31-9 would have been nothing more than a nice try had not Ed Frazier made a 42-yard field goal as time expired to tie the game, 31-31, against a No. 9 ranked WVU team in 1989.
Now, there is maybe only one more chapter to write in the history of the game, and you can almost bet that special teams will play a role in the outcome.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.