MORGANTOWN - It's not all about attitude, but it helps to start with a good one.That seems to be at least a bit of the philosophy of Joe DeForest as he tries to repair West Virginia's not-always-special special teams.A bad punt or a bad kick? Well, those can be addressed through mechanics and practice and film study and just plain old hard work. But if, as seemed to be the case more than once a year ago, those punters and/or kickers start thinking too much about their failures, well, that's often too much of a hurdle to overcome."If they let it get in their heads, then no amount of fundamentals in the world is going to help them,'' DeForest said. "That's got to be first and foremost. Then we can work on mechanics.''As West Virginia goes through 15 spring practices this month and next, most of the focus is, naturally, on tweaking and refining an offense with worlds of potential and building a brand new defense from the ground up with a virtually new coaching staff and a host of new faces on the field.But there's also a new emphasis on special teams, one that's perhaps long overdue. Dana Holgorsen has shuffled his staff and put Steve Dunlap in charge of the special teams. He hired DeForest away from Oklahoma State primarily to serve as the new co-defensive coordinator, but also for his acumen as a special teams guru.Oh, might he have been nice to have had around a year ago when first Corey Smith and then Michael Molinari went through their stretches of 50- and 60-yard punts followed by strings of frustrating shanks and misfires.Already Dunlap is noticing a difference."They're getting coached. Joe DeForest is coaching them and he knows a lot about kickers,'' Dunlap said. "A lot of those things that happened to them last year, there were a lot of us here who couldn't fix it. I've never been a guy who could coach the kickers. Joe's a guy who understands the kickers and the snappers. He's going to be a big bonus.''
As the special teams coordinator at Oklahoma State, DeForest oversaw some of the best in the country. He left in Stillwater perhaps the best punter and kicker in the country next year in Quinn Sharp. He was third in the nation in punting average last season, made 22 of his 25 field goal attempts, was the leading kick scorer in the country and led the country with 61 touchbacks on kickoffs.OK, so DeForest can't take all the credit for that, and he's not likely to turn Smith or Molinari or Tyler Bitancurt into Quinn Sharp. But after 22 years of coaching kickers and punters, he's gotten to know how to handle these guys and make them better.That includes what he's now doing at West Virginia, which is filming the kickers and punters every day and going over technique before every practice."It's just something you work at,'' DeForest said. "And anytime you work at something you get better at it, just like the players do. But I've also been very fortunate that I've had great specialists. We've recruited great specialists and they've performed.''There's more to special teams than just kicking, of course. There's coverage and returns, placement, all sorts of things. There's also finding the right players to man the teams. That was an issue as recently as last season when Holgorsen would almost routinely fire most of a kickoff coverage unit, replace them and wind up replacing them again, sometimes in mid-game.There are two things Dunlap and DeForest hope will help that situation this year: more scholarship players and more emphasis.
"The problem here in the past is we've never been up to speed with people,'' Dunlap said. "We've been under scholarship [limits] a little bit and we just didn't have enough bodies running around. By the time you go to midseason on we started running short of bodies because of injuries and that kind of thing. You can't put every one of your starters on every special team, so we tried to prioritize what starters we put on those teams."The punt is always your first priority. There aren't many plays that average 35 or 40 yards a play. And the coverage teams always take a little bit of a priority over the return teams. Those are the can-get-you-beat teams.''Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org
or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.