MORGANTOWN - You know those people who always insist that newer isn't better, that no matter how good something is these days it has nothing on what came before?Sure you do. You might even be one of them. In some respects, so am I.Take today's athletes, for instance. We get so caught up in remembering how things used to be that we tend to dismiss the advances made in things like training and specialization and nutrition, even natural evolution.Are, say, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady in the 21st century better than Johnny Unitas and Joe Namath in the 1950s and '60s? Were Namath and Unitas better than Y.A. Tittle or Otto Graham in the 1940s and '50s?
To some, it's not even a contest. The ones we remember from our youth hold such a high place in our memories that no one will ever be better.Steve Dunlap isn't necessarily like that, and perhaps there's no one more qualified when comparing football players from different eras at West Virginia. Dunlap watched the Mountaineers of the 1960s, played for the school in the 1970s and has coached nearly 30 years worth of Mountaineers since.So, along those lines, Steve, how about this one: Tavon Austin vs. Danny Buggs, special teams only?Hmmmmm."You know, I've been here a long, long time and I've never seen a player have such an impact on games as Tavon,'' Dunlap said. "On offense and special teams he's really a special guy.''More special than Buggs was?
Dunlap had to think for a moment. After all, he played with Buggs in the early 1970s, even had the misfortune of having to try to tackle him a few times in practice while Buggs was playing wide receiver and returning kicks and Dunlap was setting school records that still stand (for tackles in a game and a season) as a linebacker and on special teams."Tavon's a pretty special guy,'' Dunlap said. "He can be a running back, he can run the slot. Danny never really did anything like that. It was just passes and maybe a reverse."And then think about the sophistication in the coverages now and the speed. It's a different game. That's not to take anything away from Danny because he was a sensational player. He had a great combination of size and speed.''Indeed, at 6-foot-3 and 190 pounds, Buggs was a far different physical specimen than the 5-9, 174-pound Austin. In truth, Buggs might actually have been faster, too."The guy ran a 9.3 100,'' Dunlap said. "Granted, that was 100 yards, not meters, but even the fast guys back then were running what, 9.5 or 9.6? He could fly.''
Given that Austin has never much fooled with track while Buggs actually trained and ran for the school's track team - he was the 1973 track athlete of the year in West Virginia - indeed, Buggs might have been in-the-blocks, flat-out, straight-ahead faster than Austin. The shiftiness of both is simply a given and impossible to quantify, so have at it in that debate.But as Dunlap pointed out, there's also the difference in how players today are defended versus those of 40 years ago, which is when Buggs made his debut as a sophomore at West Virginia. There's also probably little common ground regarding the speed of the defenders who face Austin today as compared to those who defended Buggs.There is also another apples-and-oranges deal that prevents true comparisons between the two. Buggs excelled at returning punts. He scored three times on 41 punt returns, but only ran back seven kickoffs and did so without distinguishing himself. Austin didn't even return punts until he was a junior last season, and while he ranked sixth in the nation in average yards, he also had numerous missteps in simply getting to balls. His kickoff return numbers, though, look like Buggs' punt return numbers, with three career touchdowns.In defense of Austin's punt-return issues last season, he was forced to go a long way to get to balls that were being kicked away from him."If you're a smart punt team coach you're not going to kick the ball to him,'' Dunlap said. "So if we play single high [just one returner deep] and want him to catch the ball every time, it's going to be difficult. The word's out and everybody knows who he is. It's no secret anymore. We might have to go two deep in the back.''As for kickoffs, Austin's returns this season will more closely mirror the conditions Buggs faced 40 years ago when kicks were made from the 40-yard line. It went back 10 yards for years, but now is up to the 35-yard line, which is going to mean more decisions for Austin about whether or not to bring them out of the end zone.
West Virginia's coaches are likely to set some sort of rules as far as how deep is too deep. Then again, Austin has broken rules before and he won't be chastised if he runs out of the end zone from 8 yards deep and gets the ball to midfield."He breaks all the rules,'' Dunlap said.Of course, so did Buggs, and Dunlap had a bird's-eye view of some of them."When he ran the punt return back to win the game in 1973, guess who the pickoff man in the wall was,'' Dunlap said.That would be a game against Maryland in College Park. The score was tied at 13 with 36 seconds remaining and for some reason Maryland coach Jerry Claiborne and/or punter Phil Wagenheim thought it would be smart to punt the ball down the middle of the field. Buggs caught it at his 31-yard line.Buggs made so many cuts on his return that 24 seconds ran off the clock from the time the play started until he ran into the end zone and gave the Mountaineers a 20-13 win."I ran all the way across the field and he turns and reverses field,'' Dunlap said. "When he came back, I was there picking them off.''He won't be picking anyone off on punt returns this year, but he still can't shake the notion that the guy running back kicks this year is probably better than the one 40 years ago.Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org
or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.