WVU football: Calicchio helps raise excitement level
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - West Virginia begins its season Aug. 31 at home against William & Mary, nearly eight full months after an embarrassing bowl loss. Following a lengthy spring and summer preamble to a season that can't arrive soon enough after last season's 7-6 disappointment, the Mountaineers might lose sight of what's important as they hurry to write new history.
Yet that's not likely to happen because it's virtually impossible to lose sight of Mike Calicchio. He's a 6-foot-9, 325-pound offensive lineman with tattooed arms, and he is the embodiment of what the game is supposed to be for student-athletes.
"He's one of those guys on your team that you love to be around because he's so passionate about football," offensive line coach Ron Crook said. "He's into it. He loves it, and he's not passionate about just WVU football. He loves football and he's fun to be around.
"When someone is passionate about it and loves it, it raises the level of excitement and fun the whole group is having, and we do try to put a lot of emphasis on having fun out there even though some of the drills and stuff we do on a daily basis out there is not fun."
Calicchio is a redshirt junior who is still somewhat new to football. He started playing as a senior at Xaverian High School in Brooklyn, N.Y. He played one season at Valley Forge (Pa.) Military Academy before taking Bill Kirelawich up on an offer to walk on at WVU. He later left for C.W. Post before returning last season and ultimately finding a role this year.
The tallest and longest player on the team is the middle man in the three-player shield when WVU punts. Calicchio, linebacker Dozie Ezemma and inside receiver Cody Clay stand a few yards in front of the punter and make sure the opponents don't get anywhere near the action.
"I'm having so much fun with it," Calicchio said. "That's the thing about football people lose track of. Everyone gets so much into the business aspect of it that they forget about why they started playing. Maybe it's because I haven't played that long and I'm still interested in learning about it, but I just love playing."
A funny thing happened to Calicchio during preseason camp. He found himself taking snaps at right and left tackle with the second-team offense.
After all the iterations to work on leverage and hand placement, to refine pass protection sets and double teams in the run game, to master the little tips about playing big, but not too big, he'd finally put one size 18W foot forward.
"He's going to provide depth for us," Crook said. "He's definitely improving and starting to understand more and more about the things we're doing."
Calicchio is just six years into this, though. Some of his teammates have been playing since they were 5 years old.
The youngest of seven children, he started playing football late, somehow staying away even as his brother, Sean, played at UMass. Calicchio was an all-state player after his only high school season and he played in a postseason all-star game that helped him get a spot at Valley Forge in 2009. After playing guard to protect a small center in high school, Calicchio played left tackle and defensive line in prep school.
The size and the versatility caught Kirelawich's attention.
"I don't know where we'll put you," WVU's former defensive line coach told Calicchio, "but one thing we can't teach is size."
Calicchio sat out as he tried to learn to play offensive tackle. He watched the 2010 season deteriorate and had a bad feeling about the future. Without much warning or consultation, he left WVU for C.W. Post.
"It was just more of a comfortability thing," he said. "We were going through coaching changes and I kind of panicked and made an immature decision."
Calicchio started at left tackle for the Division II school and had plenty of highs playing on Long Island, but he couldn't shake the feeling he didn't quite fit.
"It wasn't because the facilities or the competition or anything like that," he said. "It's funny, but I was so close to home, but I didn't feel like I was at home. I felt like I was at home here."
The C.W. Post season ended before WVU's did in 2011, which meant Calicchio had time to watch the Orange Bowl against Clemson. He wanted to be as happy as his former teammates, but he couldn't do it.
"The fact we won and blew them out was awesome, but what hurt the most was not being able to be a part of that team experience," he said. "Not being a part of, 'Wow, we did this together and we accomplished something they didn't think we'd be able to do,' that broke my heart a little bit."
Calicchio knew those opportunities weren't available at C.W. Post. He decided to travel to WVU, meet with Coach Dana Holgorsen and ask for a second chance. Holgorsen welcomed Calicchio to his office, but left it up to offensive line coach Bill Bedenbaugh.
Bedenbaugh had some questions and Calicchio gave him answers. By the end of their meeting, Calicchio was part of the Mountaineers again. NCAA rules make a player who transfers from Division I to Division II to Division I again sit out a season, but Calicchio didn't care.
"I was just glad they took me back because it was an immature thing I did," he said. "They turned out to be real nice people and I learned in the future you have to talk to someone first before you jump to conclusions. I realized this coaching staff, even through the changes and the people we have now, are great people. They want to give you the best opportunity to help yourself."
Calicchio's spot on the offensive line is hard to see because he's not a starter and, realistically, he's not pushing seniors Nick Kindler and Pat Eger for a backup spot. No one, though, is pushing Calicchio at middle shield, which was precisely why special teams coordinator Joe DeForest put him there.
He saw a player with a wingspan greater than seven feet wide and decided on the first day of special teams work during spring practice to give it a chance.
"You get a big guy. They're going to run into you with big people. Don't let them run through you," DeForest said. "It's not rocket science."
It's not, but there are some things to remember and Calicchio picked them up quickly. There are just two calls, one to signal pressure to the right and one to signal pressure to the left, and that's something the shield can predict based on alignment before the snap.
It happens so fast that punt block teams and punt return teams can't get too exotic. There are no stunts or twists up front. There are fewer occasions today when a punt block unit will gamble with aggression and risk giving up a long return.
"Mostly you just blast the first people who come through," he said. "You stone them and throw them down and that's really it."
With punting and field position being so important to defenses in the extraordinarily offensive Big 12, it's critical to give the punter time, space and peace of mind. It's more important that the players in the shield realize their value.
"He takes real pride in it," DeForest said. "It matters to him. He's not going to get a lot of reps on the offensive line, but he takes pride in being a starter on punt. That's what we're looking for. Let's be honest: No one wants to play special teams.
"We've got to convince them it's an integral part of the game. It's our job as coaches to motivate guys to want to be specialists. You're a third-team tackle. How can you contribute to this team? Be the best middle shield in the country."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.