MORGANTOWN — Don’t tell Blake Seiler that his job coaching special teams is secondary to what most would consider his main assignment, that of handling West Virginia’s inside linebackers for head coach Neal Brown.
Maybe in the past at WVU, where Dana Holgorsen seemed to be caught up only in the offensive side of football — and there were times when you could take that word offensive any way you want — it was a special occasion when special teams did something special.
Under Brown’s regime, though, and with Seiler and his background under wily Bill Snyder at Kansas State, who may have been there when the first ball was punted, special teams is a priority.
“It’s a big deal,” Seiler said on Friday after a morning practice. “Field position is everything. The No. 1 preaching point to the kids is field position on special teams ... what are you going to do with your kicking teams and return teams to gain an advantage there.”
While it seemed to be the crackers that come with the chili in the Holgorsen days, special teams has its own niche with an understanding that you win and lose games by executing in the kicking and return games.
“It’s not rocket science but the closer you start to the goal line to start drives the better chance you will score, so it’s a big deal,” Seiler said.
He had work to do with this WVU team. While occasionally they’d get a good kickoff return or two, the punt returners handled punts like they were fielding hand grenades and, should by accident they caught one, they seemed to have no idea what to do with it.
Seiler saw the numbers when he joined the staff, if he hadn’t already found comedy in the punt return game when he was at K-State and facing WVU.
The truth is that the punt return game under Dana Holgorsen was a disgrace.
After having Tavon Austin and averaging 11 yards per return in 2012, the first Big 12 season for WVU and with the stats thrown out of whack with Austin having one 76 yard TD return and then averaging just 6.4 yards a return on his other 14 punt returns, WVU seemed to be not even trying.
The fact was the punt returners received emphasis only on making sure they caught the ball, as if long returns would take away from Holgorsen’s precious offensive statistics.
Here’s the year-by-year puny punt return averages: 2013 - 3.2; 2014 - 3.0; 2015 - 5.5; 2016 - 1.9; 2017 - 4.8 and 2018 - 5.6.
Seiler is trying to change that. Right now he’s holding auditions for returners.
“We have guys who have that skill set,” he said.
And just what is the skill set that Holgorsen never could quite find.
“The biggest thing is catching a punt is one of the hardest things to do in football. We have to be better there,” he said.
And they are getting better. Seiler said he’s seen big improvement since the spring.
“Then, after they catch it, you gotta give them a chance with our return scheme. Back at Kansas State, that was our thing, catch it and give them a chance to get started,” he said.
And if he ends up with Tevin Bush or Alec Sinkfield back there, once they get started they are a threat to make and electrifying play.
One may wonder what is so hard about catching a punt. Well, take the wind into consideration, then the spin of the ball and a special character that the returner needs to possess.
“He has to have some courageousness about him,” Seiler said. “Think about it, you are trying to field a really tough ball, you’re looking up at it so you don’t have vision of the field and guys are running full speed at you.
“You need good hands, good agility and breakaway speed.”
If you have all that, you might just want to skip college ball and go right to the NFL.
As for kickoff returns, that is getting a little trickier and less important as it appears they want to legislate it out of the game.
Nowadays, with stronger legs and the kickoff spot the 35-yard line of the kicking team, there are more touchbacks than ever. There even has been legislation proposed that they do away with kickoffs entirely and just give the ball to the receiving team at its 30 or 35 yard line.
Last year they allowed returners to fair catch the ball inside the 25-yard line and take it out to the 25.
The idea is that there are more injuries on kickoffs than anywhere in the game, so they are looking to make it safer.
Seiler isn’t sure he likes the trend.
“I hate to see that part of the game removed and just turn it into a touchback game,” he said. “You still have to practice and run down there, even though it’s a touchback almost every time.
“But, it is what it is. You control what you can control.”
Evan Staley is back to kickoff and placekick for WVU this year, putting that in good hands — or feet — and two freshmen, Leighton Bechdel and Kolton McGhee, are fighting it out for the punting job, with McGhee currently having the upper hand.
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel