The last thing people usually think about when they consider the strengths and weaknesses of a football team is special teams.
Who really wants to talk about the kicker or the punter?
Who really cares who the gunner is on the punt team or the trail guy on kickoffs?
Yes, it doesn’t always make for interesting water cooler conversation, but all you have to do is think back to last year's Oklahoma State game and consider all of the blunders West Virginia made on special teams to understand how important that aspect of the game can be.
Joe DeForest, who for years coordinated some of the best special teams units in the country at Oklahoma State and is now once again in charge of that area for West Virginia, is trying to make sure his guys understand how important special teams are to the outcome of a game.
“You look at the three things that happened against Oklahoma State last year,” he said. “Really, there were 17 points we gave up because of mishaps in the kicking game. It was a close game until those things happened.”
DeForest is a big motto guy and he has a new motto for this year’s group of special teams players: one play and out.
“There are no eight-play drives,” he pointed out. “You go out there and you kick a field goal you are either going to make it or miss it. You may have 20 minutes before you get to show it again. On kickoff, there are no eight-play drives; there are no third downs so you don’t get a second chance.”
As for the kicking game, Garland, Texas freshman Josh Lambert
appears to have locked up the place kicking duties with a strong fall camp. The punting has been very solid with junior college transfer Nick O’Toole and junior Michael Molinari
battling it out each day in practice. And the long snapper, sophomore John DePalma
, is “light years ahead of where he was last year,” according to coach Dana Holgorsen.
For the most part, DeForest said the punters have been consistently hitting the ball in the 40, 45-yard range with some punts traveling more than 50, 55 yards. DeForest said he looks for three things out of his punting game.
“Operation time – how quick can you get it out? Hang time – how long can you give me to run down there and tackle the ball? And average is the last thing,” he explained. “If he can hit it 40, that’s great. I just need hang time to get down there.”
Special teams tackling has been an area of emphasis for DeForest this fall. He said kickoffs and punts are a good way to expose mediocre athletes.
“You teach a kid how to tackle every single day. That’s been taught from day one,” he said. “The problem is when you get them running out there full speed and the guy moves on him. Can he, athletically, change directions? That’s a problem across the board across the country. You see missed tackles because there is so much open space.”
Concerning the return game, DeForest said he is working with several different guys at those spots.
“We’ve got all of our receivers working it right now,” he said of his punt return candidates. “We’re working (freshman cornerback) Daryl Worley
back there because he’s done it in high school. (Houston transfer) Charles Sims
will have an opportunity; (Wendell) Smallwood, so we’re working a lot of guys back there.”
On kickoff returns, Sims, Smallwood and Dreamius Smith
are the top guys in the mix right now.
“Those guys are big and they can break tackles,” DeForest said.
DeForest mentioned that wide receivers coach Lonnie Galloway has come up with some interesting drills to help the skill guys focus on catching the football first before taking off with it.
“He does a great job with them and has got some drills that help them try and catch the ball with two towels underneath their arms so they keep their elbows tucked,” he said.
DeForest makes it a point to sell his guys on the importance of being a good special teams player. It’s not only important for the team now, but it can also be important for their pro aspirations down the line as well.
“Unless you are a first round pick, you’re going to make a (NFL) team by playing special teams,” he said. “We’ve had scouts and NFL players come in here and tell them, ‘Look, there are only 53 guys on a roster and when you take out 10 offensive linemen and you take out six different linemen and then you take out the quarterbacks, now you’re talking about 30 guys to fill all those spots. You better be able to play special teams.’”
“You think (pro) scouts come in and watch offense and defense? No, they come in and watch special teams,” he said. “The first two guys that the scouts talk to are the strength coach and the special teams coordinator. Why? 'Does he work hard in the weight room? Can he help us on special teams?' That is a selling point I try to tell the kids if they have any aspirations and hopefully they will buy in.”
Overall, DeForest said he’s been pretty pleased with the way his special teams groups have performed so far during camp.
“I’m very confident from what we’ve showed in camp that we’re going to be OK,” he said.
Holgorsen, too, believes there are enough quality players to put on West Virginia’s special teams units this year.
“There is a lot that goes into the special teams,” he said. “You need a lot of depth to be able to be adequate or above average and I like our depth. We have a lot of bodies that will be able to help us on special teams.”