MORGANTOWN — There has come a point in every one of West Virginia’s spring football games over the years when a player does something and everyone in attendance is left wondering, “Who is that guy?’’
And yes, it happened a week ago when the Mountaineers finished their spring drills with the Gold-Blue game.
In the second half, in the middle of the defensive unit, there was a No. 42 making plays both good and bad, at least once on the same snap. He would finish the afternoon with three tackles, one of them an 8-yard sack of quarterback Skyler Howard and another a 3-yard loss pinned on transfer running back Rushel Shell.
But according to the roster distributed that day, the only No. 42 on the defensive team was punter Houstin Syvertson, the walk-on from Shady Spring. He was even listed as a punter on that roster. It couldn’t have been him, right?
“Huey the punter,’’ defensive coordinator Tony Gibson said. “Huey’s a great kid.’’
And he’s also no longer a punter.
After working out as a punter after being invited to preseason camp as a true freshman, Syvertson has now gravitated to the spot he really wanted to play when he came to school, linebacker.
“We talked to him before spring ball and told him we thought he had a role on this team on special teams,’’ Gibson said. “We told him to come play linebacker and he’s gotten better every day. I love the way he plays. He plays with a passion and he plays hard.’’
But a punter-turned-linebacker? Really?
Well, not exactly. The fact of the matter is Syvertson has always considered himself a football player who just happened to have a knack for punting the football. He was a pretty good football player in high school at Shady Spring, too.
The trouble was Syvertson didn’t seem to have what it would take to play linebacker or pretty much any other regular position at the highest level. Or at least that’s what the coaches thought. And it wasn’t just West Virginia’s coaches. The Division I offers didn’t exactly pour in when he was a senior.
“I had a bunch of opportunities to go to schools like Robert Morris, Rutgers, a bunch of [Division II] schools around West Virginia,’’ Syvertson said.
What Syvertson had, however, was a wild card to play. He could punt. Maybe it wasn’t exactly his dream to be a college punter, but if that’s what it took to get his foot in the door, well, so be it.
And West Virginia certainly wasn’t in any position to turn down potential punters. Syvertson arrived the same time as junior college transfer Nick O’Toole, who was recruited because West Virginia’s punting game was atrocious. That he didn’t win the job didn’t matter. He was in school and on the team and he impressed the coaches with the strength of his leg last summer.
And because he was on the team, that put him in position to impress them in other ways. It had always been understood — or at least Syvertson hoped it was — that punting was only one of his talents, and that what he really wanted was a chance to play a regular position. The coaches seemed fine with that, too, because they told Syvertson they saw him as an athlete who could fit into any number of holes.
Would they have taken him had he not been able to punt? Maybe, maybe not.
“It’s a little bit of a grey area I guess,’’ Syvertson said. “I’m not sure.’’
Again, though, if using punting as a calling card was the way to get to Morgantown, so be it. That’s where Syvertson always wanted to be, anyway.
“I’m a West Virginia boy who always watched WVU football,’’ Syvertson said. “It was always one of my dreams to be a Mountaineer.’’
He got his first chance to play on Mountaineer Field in front of a crowd in last weekend’s spring game and he left an impression. Even his most embarrassing play turned out well when he was leveled in the backfield by two blockers, but still managed to get up and make the tackle.
“I need to keep on my feet and run harder,’’ Syvertson said. “Eli Wellman and Dustin Garrison smacked me. But I still got the tackle after that, so that felt good.’’
Syvertson hasn’t completely given up punting, although he no longer works with the specialists during practice. But he sends a few balls through the air every now and then just so that he remembers how to do it. After all, the more ways a walk-on can contribute, the better the chances he has to play.
“I do it from time to time,’’ Syvertson said. “Just in case I’m needed in the future.’’
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/dphickman1