Mountaineer special teams in need of a makeover
WHEN MANY folks are asked on the phone what they're doing, they'll say nothing special.
WVU assistant coach Steve Dunlap, meanwhile, is always doing something special. Special teams, that is.
And this week it's his job - as well as other Mountaineer assistants - to tighten up WVU's special teams.
See, while the Mountaineer offense is special and while the team's defense might be beyond help, the special teams units can improve. They might be able to swing close games WVU's way, and they certainly can prove deadly to the Mountaineers in games like this week's at Texas.
Under head coach Mack Brown, Texas special teams have been tight so far. The Longhorns are No. 4 nationally in net punting. They are No. 5 in punt returns. They are No. 12 in kickoff returns. D.J. Monroe recorded his third career kickoff return for a score last Saturday against Oklahoma State - from a distance of 100 yards.
Texas fans, however, do groan when the subject is field goal kicking. While they await a healthy Anthony Fera, the Penn State transfer with a groin injury, they've watched Nick Jordan hit but 3 of 7 attempts.
West Virginia fans, however, have groaned more than old men in nursing homes over their team's special teams play. Nationally, WVU is No. 118 in net punting. In punt returns, it's No. 87. In punt return defense, it's No. 106. In kickoff returns, it's No. 80. And in kickoff return defense, it's No. 69.
Which is why when you ask Dunlap what he's doing, the answer is short: "Special teams," he says.
"I don't have answers for you, if that's what you're looking for," Dunlap said. "All I can tell you is Dana [Holgorsen] gives us plenty of time to work on it, and it's a priority. Also, [fellow assistant] Joe DeForest is an excellent coach in the area. He's taught me a lot. He knows a lot."
So does Dunlap, WVU's special teams coordinator and former Broyles Award finalist for the nation's top assistant.
"The biggest problem on kickoff return is no one kicks to Stedman [Bailey] or Tavon [Austin]," Dunlap said. "They sky-kick or line-drive it or kick it out of bounds.
"Against Baylor, of the three chances we had to return it - when it wasn't a knuckleball or line-drive - we did well. On one, we returned it to the 40 and, on the other, the 41. And the kids are doing a good job [blocking] upfield."
Still, WVU, with two of the nation's top wide receivers returning kickoffs, are averaging 20 yards per kickoff return.
Dunlap addressed punt returns, specifically in relation to the Baylor game. In the score-a-palooza, there were only two Bear punts.
"The first one was in the red zone," Dunlap said. "[Baylor punter Spencer Roth's punt] went 37 yards and had good hang time. There was no opportunity to return it. On the second, it went to the sideline with 4.6 seconds of hang time. There was no opportunity to return it."
Austin was credited with 1 return yard on the day.
On the flip side, net punting, the Mountaineers are getting hammered. The average gained by the Baylor Bears last Saturday on two punts was 46.5 yards of field position. WVU gained but 15.5 yards of field position on its two punts. One Mountaineer punter, Corey Smith, had a 45-yard punt that was returned nicely by Baylor's Levi Norwood. When Holgorsen tried Mike Molinari, his punt was shanked and went but 31 yards with no return.
"That kills you," Dunlap said. "We punt the ball 45 yards and [Norwood] returns it 45 yards. A lot goes into it, though. It's where the ball goes; it's how long it hangs up. You want it to hang up four seconds or better."
Then there are opponents' schematic maneuvers to consider in this ball of wax called special teams.
"Baylor changed their [kickoff] return scheme totally," Dunlap said. "They'd never done what they did against us. We had to adjust."
The good news for WVU is the team's offense has been covering for the defense and special teams. Kicker Tyler Bitancurt has attempted just two field goals, hitting one. And Dunlap says there are some new guys on the special teams who are improving.
"That [Garrett] Hope kid is a terror on the kickoff team," Dunlap said. "Some of these kids are getting better and better."
In Austin on Saturday, they'll need to be at their best yet.