MORGANTOWN - Perhaps lost in all the hype surrounding West Virginia's first foray into the Big 12, the explosive potential of its offense, a reshaped defense and every other hot-button topic surrounding this team is something easily overlooked but perhaps as crucial to its success as anything.The kicking game.True, what happens there could easily be rendered irrelevant if an offense led by coach Dana Holgorsen, preseason player of the year Geno Smith, receivers Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey et al fails to live up to its promise.And yes, that under-new-management defense has a seriously uphill climb ahead of it in a league in which even the best of those units can be made to look silly on any given Saturday.But just for a moment let's imagine that everything comes together on both sides of the ball for the Mountaineers. Even if that happens, in a league in which virtually every foe has the potential - if not the expectations - to crack the Top 25, what is it that generally makes the difference?Well, two things. Turnovers - both ways - and the kicking game.The turnover aspect will be addressed by the offense and the defense as a matter of course. It always is.Ah, but the kicking game. That's a different animal.Not only does West Virginia begin practice Thursday with a rather, shall we say, inconsistent group of kickers, there are also new rules to follow.
Beginning this season, kickoffs are back to the 35-yard line instead of the 30. That means the potential for more that go into the end zone. If those kickoffs aren't brought out of the end zone, touchbacks now result in the ball being placed at the 25-yard line, not the 20. (Other touchbacks, such as a punt or an interception, will still go to the 20.) Remember those kickoff coverage guys lining up 10 yards off the ball and having a full head of steam by the time they reach any opposition? Well, they can't do that anymore. Kickoff team members have to line up within 5 yards of the ball, the idea being to reduce the speed a bit. On punts, the halo is back. This time it's 1 yard in front of the punt returner. OK, so returners are still going to get slammed, but it won't be instantaneous, and the poor guy now has a fighting chance to dodge the bullet.So how will all of those changes affect the kicking game? Well, Holgorsen is of the school of thought that most are no big deal. And even if they turn out to be significant, what's he supposed to do about it?"It doesn't matter if I like them or not,'' Holgorsen said of both the new special-teams rules and those limiting below-the-waist blocks on scrimmage plays. "I've got to understand them and coach them.''
The most visible of the new rules, from a fan's standpoint, are probably the 35-yard-line kickoff and the 25-yard-line touchback, simply because they will happen so often in the highest-scoring league in the country. There will certainly be more kicks into the end zone from 5 yards closer, but will there be more touchbacks? Logic says yes because there's more reward now with the extra 5 yards on the other end.That's not necessarily the case, though. Witness the NFL, which moved kickoffs to the 35 last year, but kept the 20-yard-line touchback."Look at what the NFL did early in the year last year,'' Holgorsen said. "If you remember, the kickoff team was going down slow because they knew that thing was going into the end zone. And about the time they relaxed those guys took it out from 8 yards deep and there was a whole bunch of kickoff returns in the NFL early.''Will that happen in the college game? Who knows? Holgorsen merely says that he and his staff have "done all the studies and we'll have a plan.''The rules surrounding the kickoff game, though, don't figure to be the biggest changes for West Virginia. Corey Smith and Tyler Bitancurt split the kickoff duties last season and each had his terrific and embarrassing moments. Ditto Smith and Mike Molinari as punters. They each had games - or sometimes stretches of games - in which they looked like Ray Guy. But both also had punts that looked like their first ever.All are back - Smith and Bitancurt are seniors and Molinari a sophomore - and Holgorsen says there will be a difference this season, and it's a simple one."The one thing about our specialists is that they're going to get coached a little bit better this year,'' Holgorsen said. "One oversight that I had [in his first season], not being able to put a whole staff together, is I didn't have a guy who knew how to coach those guys. I thought by me yelling at them that would fix it. It made it worse.''He corrected that when he hired as his defensive coordinator Oklahoma State's Joe DeForest, who also coached some of the best special teams in the country the last 11 years at OSU."Joe DeForest has coached Ray Guy [Award] winners, he's coached Lou Groza [Award] winners. He understands how to coach specialists,'' Holgorsen said. "We should show some improvement with those guys just because of that.''There's also a wild card as far as those kickoffs are concerned. Josh Lambert was signed late as a kicker out of Texas and probably will take some time to adjust to placement kicks. But if he can put the ball on the 35-yard line and whack it into the end zone consistently, might he play right away?"Maybe,'' Holgorsen said, pointing out that it will probably take a couple of weeks of camp to see what Lambert can do. "It goes back to that question, if you can help the team in any form whatsoever, I don't care what it is, we're going to play you. So I've got no problems playing him just to do that if he helps the team.''Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or email@example.com or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.