WVU football: Roberts wants returns to score
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - In the technical aspect, Daron Roberts is West Virginia's outside receivers coach and in charge of anything the Mountaineers do on kickoff and punt returns. That includes recovering onside kicks and blocking punts.
In his mind, though, Roberts is a part-time offensive coordinator.
"My philosophy is the catch is a given, first and foremost, and we're going to catch everything that comes our way," Roberts said. "Once that happens, we want to score. We're not looking at punt return and kickoff return as being safe types of units. We're looking at them as a true offensive play.
"We're going to scheme up and draw up punt returns with the sole intent to get into the end zone."
He approaches his responsibility the same way the actual offensive coordinator, Dana Holgorsen, approaches his.
"I look at the punt and kickoff teams as opposing units and scheme our returns based on what they do," Roberts said. "Obviously we'll have some basic returns up the middle and to the left and right and situations where we have to play it safe, but what we want to do is capitalize on what we view to be the other team's weaknesses."
The Mountaineers have had only 19 punt return touchdowns in school history and none since Vaughn Rivers scored on a 50-yard return at Mississippi State in 2006. Opponents have had three return touchdowns since then.
Since Bill Stewart took over as coach before the 2008 season, WVU has ranked Nos. 74, 44 and 58 nationally and only once averaged more than 8.41 yards per return (10.36 in 2009).
In 2007, when the Mountaineers were one win away from a spot in the national championship game, they ranked No. 23 (12.0). A year before, when they were ranked No. 5 in the preseason poll and went as high as No. 3, the Mountaineers ranked No. 53, but averaged 9.0 yards, more than in 2010 and 2008.
A kickoff has been returned 12 times in school history and junior Tavon Austin had the last one, a 98-yard play against Connecticut in 2009. Opponents have had one since then.
WVU was No. 108 in kickoff returns last season (19.2), No. 60 (21.9) in 2009 and No. 56 (21.5) in 2008. That followed rankings of No. 34 (22.5) and No. 8 (24.3) the previous two seasons.
"I already told them, 'You don't care what I did with the Lions, I don't care what you did the past few years. We're both starting with a blank slate,'" said Roberts, a first-time college coach after four seasons on NFL staffs and time spent working with special teams. "I'm not going to show them tape of any other team. We're going to start building a library of tape of what we can do and judge them from there."
Spring is not conducive to developing special teams beyond establishing who has good hands and feet, and that's often accomplished with a JUGS machine and non-contact drills.
The roster will later welcome the freshman class and walk-ons, but right now isn't deep enough to supply bodies for the drills. There's also far too much time needed to install the offense and defense to rationalize taking time away for special teams.
Head coaches say there are three parts of the game - offense, defense and special teams - but Roberts figures 10-15 percent of practice time in a week goes to special teams, which includes his return units, the field goal/extra point teams and the punt and kickoff coverage groups.
For that, Roberts said it's his job to get ahead and simplify the returns and the blocks.
"That way in the time we do spend on it, guys will be able to pick it up and grasp it," he said. "We don't want to walk into a game with 25 returns. I want to simplify it to where we hit the field and we have just a few options at our disposal that we think we're going to be able to win with."
The Mountaineers have done very little on special teams in spring practice - although they might get to it in today's second scrimmage at Mountaineer Field - but Roberts has put some players through drills to simply catch the kicked ball.
He's identified Austin, fellow receivers J.D. Woods and Brad Starks and cornerback Pat Miller as possibilities.
Roberts won't know more about them or others until they go live and that might have to wait until camp in August, where it will remain a volunteer duty, though anyone who wants to give it a whirl is encouraged to do so.
"I want to see guys who want to separate themselves and want to be on the unit and want to be effective and catch the ball and get up field," Roberts said. "I'll be able to tell pretty quickly who can and can't do it, but all of them know that they have an opportunity to jump into the mix. We'll take the performance from there."
That goes for anyone else on the return teams. Roberts said he will treat starters and top reserves on offense and defense the same as walk-ons: If they're good enough, they'll play. Instead of skill to play on those units, Roberts is looking more for a desire to play.
"Some guys here want to play in the (NFL)," said Roberts, who worked for the Kansas City Chiefs and Detroit Lions. "If you want to stay on an NFL roster, you better be able to play special teams.
"The guy in the room who has the tie-breaking vote on roster decisions is always the special teams coach. If the special teams coach says he doesn't get anything from you, you're out, regardless if you're offense or defense."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.