MORGANTOWN - For all of the questions remaining concerning West Virginia's offense and defense less than two weeks before the season, special teams might be just as uncertain.No, it's not especially high profile, like picking a quarterback or weeding through what seems to be deep talent pools at running back and wide receiver. Nor is it as intriguing as finding out if changes made will have the desired - or any - effect on a wretched defense.Remember, though, that West Virginia is also replacing Tyler Bitancurt. And it could take three players to do it.While best remembered perhaps for his game-winning field goal against Pitt as a freshman and an unfortunate penchant for getting kicks blocked over the course of his career, Bitancurt also did something else last season that tends to be forgotten.
He was essentially the team's only kicker and punter. No one else attempted a field goal. Of WVU's 45 punts, he handled 32. He also kicked off 34 times.Only Corey Smith had a real role in kicking the ball last season - punting 10 times and kicking off 59. But he's gone, too. The only player who recorded an official field goal, PAT, punt or kickoff who returns is Mike Molinari, whose primary job was to hold for placements. He also had a 31-yard punt.That's it. That's all that returns.If Dana Holgorsen is bothered by that, though, he hides it well. Perhaps it's because he has those more high-profile issues on offense and defense. Or perhaps he genuinely is comfortable with the brand new kicking game - redshirt freshman Josh Lambert placekicking, junior college transfer Nick O'Toole and Molinari punting, and those three battling for the kickoff job."I'm going to brag on those guys a little bit,'' Holgorsen said as camp was winding down. "Josh Lambert is doing well. ... Our punters are booming the ball. Nick O'Toole has a strong leg. Michael Molinari has done a great job punting and has also been doing a lot of kickoff stuff. And Huey [walk-on freshman punter Houston Syvertson] is doing great as well. He might have the strongest leg of all three.''Throw in the job being done by his sophomore long-snapper - "John DePalma is light years ahead of where he was last year. That's a very under-appreciated position until they're not very good, but he looks very good,'' Holgorsen said - and all seems on schedule in the kicking game.
The only issues, it seems, are choosing a winner in the punting competition and finding a kickoff specialist. The punting job is one of those that doesn't really matter, of course. The coaches will pick a winner and if he does the job, fine. If not, they change punters. It's not as if they have to blend into a complex system.The kickoff job is a little more complex."We just don't have a guy that can put it in the end zone,'' special teams coach Joe DeForest said. "So you have to be creative.''That could be an ongoing issue, as it has been the last two years. Bitancurt and Smith were a revolving door in the job in both 2011 and 2012. The coverage changes depending upon how the kicker aims the ball on kickoffs, so that is likely to be a work in progress until it's sorted out.As for the rest of the special teams - kick and punt coverage and returns, primarily - much of that will be sorted out in the next two weeks.
"Our special teams is not just the kicker, punter and returner. There's a lot that goes into the special teams,'' Holgorsen 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.''The return spots are much like the wide receiver and running back corps. There's depth there - mainly because the returners come from primarily those two well-stocked positions - and it's just a matter of sorting it out.Expect the first to get a shot to come from a group that includes receivers Ronald Carswell, Mario Alford, Jordan Thompson and Vernon Davis, along with running backs Charles Sims and Wendell Smallwood. Freshman cornerback Daryl Worley is another option, particularly if there is a desire to keep a defender on the field. Freshmen receivers Shelton Gibson and Jacky Marcellus could also line up back there, but could be redshirted, too."We have guys that will be able to do it and look comfortable back there,'' Holgorsen said. "But it's still up for grabs, though. We should have enough bodies to have different punt returners than we do kick returners, which is a skill I would like to develop.''Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or email@example.com or follow him at twitter.com/dphickman1