The Times West Virginian

WVU Sports

April 14, 2011

HERTZEL COLUMN: ‘Bullets fly’ on special teams

MORGANTOWN — Often in this profession, you spend an hour interviewing someone just hoping to get one quote upon which you can hang a column.

This was one of those days.

In truth, this day produced not just a quote from West Virginia’s new inside receiver and special teams coach Daron Roberts, but one that would turn his life story into a best seller if he were to use it as the title.

“You can’t tell until you see the bullets fly.”

It says it all about special team play, for sure, but it says so much more. The game of football, and life itself, really come down to that.

You can’t find out who’s got it until they are challenged.

There have been clichés built off that theme used by football coaches forever, the most prominent being, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going,” but in the context that Roberts used the words it was the perfect fit.

Right now, Roberts admits, he doesn’t know, because the bullets have not yet been flying, but he has ideas of what he wants and this man in the possession of two advanced degrees from Harvard is going to build the Mountaineers punt and kickoff return teams into weapons.

“I’m not going to look at kickoff and punt return films for the last three years,” he said. “We’re going to wipe that slate clean.”

He told his players that he’s sure they are not interested in what he did in Detroit and he’s not interested in what they did at West Virginia, that he is only interested in what they do at West Virginia.

The philosophy is changing, for Roberts plans to put together his return teams with the thought of making it a weapon. One might recall that over the past two years, it was safety first of punt returns, and that even though Brandon Hogan and Jock Sanders were capable returners, there were a lot of fair catches and a lot of short returns born out of caution.

“My philosophy is the catch is a given,” Roberts explained. “Once that happens, we want to score. We’re not looking to be safe. We want it to be a true offensive play.”

That is in keeping with the offensive philosophy Dana Holgorsen is bringing to Morgantown, a coach who believes in offensive, wide-open football and who will do what it takes to get the ball down the field and into the end zone.

Roberts is not throwing caution to the wind on the catch, however. He understands how turnovers can kill a team on special teams, so that will be worked on to the point that it can become “a given.”

Both the punt and kickoff returns require different skills from the returner.

“The punt returner has to be more quick twitched,” he said, referring to catching the ball and having to make a quick move to make that first defender miss.

That’s what he means doing it with the bullets flying, for the outside defenders are termed “bullets,” and you have to concentrate on the catch first, then make the move under pressure. It is not for the weak-kneed or the weak of heart.

It also seems to describe Tavon Austin, but Austin is one of many in the mix to return both kicks and punts, joined by the taller Brad Starks, Broderick Jenkins and Pat Miller.

While it would seem on the surface that the kickoff return plan would be more intricate, with the entire field in play, Roberts says that punt return is more complicated because there is so much variation ... trying to block the kick, return it, safe returns and the kicking team also able to run a fake or get off a directional kick that pins a returner to one sideline.

The kickoff return is more “prescribed,” he said, although it has gotten more difficult with the change in the collegiate rules last year to cut the wedge down to just two players instead of three.

“I understand the safety concerns,” Roberts said, adding that it does make the wedge easier to get around than it had been in the past.

The decisions on personnel will not necessarily be made in the spring and certainly they won’t be final, but Roberts will know what he is working with by the end of the spring.

“I’ll be able to tell who can do it,” he said.

It will be the ones without the bullet holes.

Email Bob Hertzel at

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