MORGANTOWN — In so many ways, West Virginia’s kicking game these days is just like the rest of the team.
In other words, it’s deep and experienced, but it still has a lot to prove.
Just like the Mountaineers’ offense and defense — where experience abounds at almost every position, but production has to increase dramatically in order to avoid another four-win season — West Virginia’s specialists are now veterans.
Kicker Josh Lambert and punter Nick O’Toole have a year under their belts and played well, but probably not at the level of which they are capable.
“Believe me, they’re working,’’ special teams coordinator Joe DeForest said. “They’re already better than they were last year and they’re going to get even better.’’
It’s not as if either had poor years in 2013.
O’Toole, in his first year out of junior college, was one of the best punters in the Big 12 and is generally regarded as one of the best — if not the best — returning in the league this year. He averaged 44.1 yards per punt, the sixth-best average in school history, and WVU led the conference in net punting.
“But he has to get better,’’ DeForest said. “And he’s the kind of guy who works hard to make sure he does get better.’’
Lambert was no disappointment as a redshirt freshman last year, either. He was 17 of 23 on field goal attempts, which is fairly pedestrian, but four of his six misses were from 50 yards and beyond. Inside 50 yards, Lambert was 16 of 18.
And he did it with a less-than-healthy leg.
“He was hurt last year. He had a groin and another muscle that was bothering him,’’ DeForest said. “He kicked at about 75 percent.’’
So this August, the emphasis is on preserving Lambert’s leg.
“What we’ve tried to do this camp and throughout the fall, we’re going to pare down his reps,’’ DeForest said. “He loves to kick. He loves to warm up. Well, that tears his body down.’’
DeForest said that within the first couple of days of preseason camp, Lambert hit one field goal close to 60 yards.
“His leg strength is the best it’s ever been,’’ DeForest said. “I think that comes with strength and conditioning and it comes with not kicking as much.’’
Lambert and O’Toole aren’t the only returnees to the kicking game. Snapper John DePalma is now in his third season and has been so perfect in his snaps that he’s seldom noticed. The holder, Mike Molinari, doesn’t botch handling snaps, either, and can also serve as the backup punter and kicker.
“As a group, I think it’s the best I’ve ever had,’’ said DeForest, who coordinated the special teams at Oklahoma State before coming to WVU. “The snapper, the holder, the punter and the kicker, as a group, is as solid a group as anybody in the country.’’
If there is a weak spot it would be kickoffs.
“I’d like to have the ball kicked into the end zone a little bit more than we do,’’ DeForest said. “That’s probably our weakest link.’’
All three of the kickers can handle kickoff duties. Molinari did it most of last season and O’Toole tried it a few times. Lambert didn’t kick off in an effort to save his leg. Freshman walk-on Billy Kinney from University High is also in camp and any of the four could win the kickoff job.
“It’s an open competition,’’ DeForest said.
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.