MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Under other circumstances, a special teams coordinator calling his placekicker a “flatliner” would suggest that kid’s time spent kicking for that coach had met its death. When Joe DeForest describes Josh Lambert that way, he means it in the best way possible.
“If you watch him kick a game-winning field goal and watch him miss a field goal, you would not know what the difference was,” DeForest said. “He reacts the same way.”
And that’s why DeForest eventually realized something was wrong with Lambert last season as the then-redshirt freshman closed a season that saw him make 17 of 23 field goals, but go 1 for 5 from 50 yards or longer. Lambert was wincing after practice kicks.
“He had a butt strain and a groin (injury),” DeForest said. “That whole tendon that goes up there was hurting. We had to shelve him the last part of the year during the week.”
Whether he’s a kicker or not, Lambert is a physical specimen. He’s 5-foot-11 and 215 pounds, which is the same size as running back Dreamius Smith. Lambert bench presses 375 pounds in workouts and has put 400 in the air before, DeForest said, because Lambert admires large NFL kicker Sebastian Janikowski.
DeForest said WVU has to be careful Lambert doesn’t get too big or too tight and risk pulling or straining anything. He was assigned yoga during the summer to work on core strength and flexibility. When the kickers are inactive during practice, Lambert is with the strength and conditioning coaches working on stretches and staying loose.
DeForest said he has to do some things differently, too.
“Josh has a habit of really overworking,” DeForest said. “You love for guys to do that, but not at that position. He warms up too much and it’s hard to control him. ‘Just stop. Get loose by stretching, running, riding a bike. Don’t get loose banging a ball and hurt yourself.’
“We have a much better warmup routine now than last year, and that was me getting to know him and him getting to know his body.”
DeForest said Lambert is free to try 60-yard field goals in practice and that he makes them consistently.
“I don’t want to say with ease,” DeForest said, “but they’re clearing by four or five yards.”
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FRESHMAN QUARTERBACK William Crest continues to field and return punts in practice. The Mountaineers aren’t discussing it in great detail, but DeForest said Monday that Crest and receivers Mario Alford and Jordan Thompson are the team’s top three returners.
WVU seems to take offense to the suggestion this is a gimmick. Coaches stress there’s value in having someone like Crest involved in practice and getting used to the speed at this level. Yet there’s a danger involved, too, especially for someone who could be the backup quarterback and who coach Dana Hogorsen said Monday might have a package tailored to his strengths for the season.
DeForest deferred the decision-making to Holgorsen, but tried to highlight the similarities between playing quarterback and returning punts and how the experience can help Crest and the Mountaineers.
“There’s an inherent risk, but there’s also a confidence and a fear factor, if you will,” DeForest said. “If I’m back there as a quarterback with my back to a guy coming at me, it’s no different than a guy coming at my face. You still have to exude confidence. ‘I can field this ball and go.’ Any time you’re in that situation, that helps, and, again, it gives us another opportunity to get the ball in the hands of a good athlete.”
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ASSISTANT COACH Damon Cogdell is no longer working with linebackers. The former WVU linebacker and head coach at Florida’s Miramar High School is now with assistant coach Tom Bradley and the defensive line. Cogdell works with the defensive ends.
“We made the change about four weeks ago, just trying to put people in the right spots to be helpful for the team,” Cogdell said. “Now we’ve got two guys with the linebackers and two guys with the defensive line down there. The nose and the end are two different positions.”
The second linebacker coach with defensive coordinator Tony Gibson is graduate assistant Anthony Leonard, who isn’t part of the actual coaching staff. The former WVU linebacker was recruited out of McKeesport, Pennsylvania, by Gibson and had been the defensive line coach at West Virginia Wesleyan, where Gibson’s son is an offensive lineman.
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GIBSON AND DEFOREST, who doubles as the safeties coach, have a healthy, though certainly unique situation at free safety. Karl Joseph, who played there his first two seasons, is now the bandit safety. Sophomore Jeremy Tyler and junior Ricky Rumph battled in spring football and they were joined in the summer by freshmen Dravon Henry and Daejuan Funderburk.
The newcomers have done so well so far that Rumph is back with the cornerbacks. He played there his first two seasons. Henry and Tyler are fighting for the starting spot and the staff likes Funderburk as the third option right now.
“I just think with Ricky being brought in to be a corner, I think it’s more natural for him,” Gibson said. “He does good things in coverage and we felt there was a bigger need at corner than there was at safety. Ricky’s a swing guy we can do that with.”
Tyler started the final game of the season at bandit in place of injured Darwin Cook and saw a small number of defensive snaps in seven other games because Cook, like Joseph, never came out of the lineup. That sliver of playing time at a different position is all the experience WVU has among the three free safety candidates.
“Really, to be honest with you, in our scheme and what we want to do, if you’re going to play someone like that, like a true freshman, you’d rather play him there than out on the perimeter or at spur or bandit where the action is,” Gibson said.
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.charestondailymail.com/wvu. Follow him on Twitter at @mikecasazza.