Mike Casazza: Kicking could be a problem again
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - The suspense that precedes West Virginia's 2013 season will likely last until the opening kickoff.
Then the anguish might begin.
"We don't have a guy who can put it in the end zone," special teams coordinator Joe DeForest said. "That's a problem."
That's obvious. That's hard to explain, too. The NCAA shook up the rulebook last season and moved the kickoff spot up 5 yards to the kicking team's 35-yard line, but also added 5 yards to a touchback. That last part may have escaped you because the Mountaineers were pretty bad at kickoffs last season.
They were actually one of the worst. Out of 120 FBS teams, WVU was No. 87 in average kickoff distance (59.86 yards) and No. 95 in the percentage of kickoffs that were touchbacks (24.73).
"The rule should have helped us," DeForest said.
Touchbacks aren't guaranteed. Only 20 players managed touchbacks on at least half of their kicks last season. Many returners are so dynamic that they're emboldened, whether by confidence or the coach's command, to return any kick that can be caught.
But now only eight days away from the season opener at home against William & Mary, DeForest is preparing for, though in no way accepting, the reality it might not be better in 2013.
"You've got to be creative with your coverage unit," he said. "We're still trying to develop a guy, still trying to find a guy, but now you've got to work on hang time because you're not going to get touchbacks."
Directional kicks to a corner of the field or sky kicks that give players extra tenths of a second to get through the blocking can help, but it's not ideal. Teams have enough depth now to have gifted kickoff return men and talented players blocking. Coaches give returns enough time in practice to make a difference in a game.
The best weapon is a big foot that sends the ball deep into the end zone. Despite scholarships sprinkled across special teams, the Mountaineers don't have one.
Well, not one they can use.
Josh Lambert, for example, can do it. He is also WVU's place kicker and DeForest doesn't want to jeopardize that part of the team.
"Our drop off is so dramatic from Josh to our next field goal kicker that you're taking a chance with Josh and wearing him down with kickoffs," DeForest said. "You've got to measure where you put your risk-reward at."
Lambert also has what coaches refer to as a "tight body." He's strong, well built, thick, but also compact. DeForest worries that extra duty from kicking or, don't forget, tackling could tweak something.
The Mountaineers sunk a scholarship in junior college punter Nick O'Toole and he'll be WVU's starter. The gap between O'Toole and his backup, junior Michael Molinari, isn't too severe, but a risk is present.
DeForest doesn't worry about the right leg for Lambert and O'Toole. He worries about the left and the effect it can have on their mechanics.
"Kickoffs are the hardest thing to do on the body," he said. "They're harder on your plant foot and your plant leg. It's a 10-yard sprint and then you stick your left foot in the ground. There's jarring of the hip and the hamstring. It's hard and it adds up."
If DeForest had his way - and ultimately, he does - Molinari would handle kickoffs and hopefully not hurt the hands that DeForest believes make him one of the nation's best holders for field goals and extra points.
And if Molinari doesn't earn it, and if DeForest doesn't want to strain Lambert and O'Toole, DeForest will look to a newcomer, not freshman Houstin Syvertson. The punter from Shady Spring High School "can't do it" and is at least a year away, despite his powerful leg. DeForest is giving some thought to Michael Molina, a freshman kicker from Hurricane High who is 5-foot-9 and 150 pounds.
"As small as he is," DeForest said, "he has unbelievable leg speed."
What might ultimately distinguish DeForest's pick is not the strongest leg, but the best ability to execute the specific kicks DeForest orders. He's most likely to employ a variety of strategies to handle the other team as well as his literal shortcoming on kickoffs.
That could go a long way toward fixing a problem that has to be fixed. WVU's defense last season was as bad as you've heard it was, but it didn't get much help along the way. The average kickoff was caught just outside the 5 and returned to just shy of the 30. The 23.65 yards allowed per return ranked No. 99 nationally.
Now consider how productive WVU's offense was last season. The Mountaineers scored 69 touchdowns, kicked 11 field goals and kicked off 93 times, the 12th-highest total in the country. That's seven kickoffs per game. Factor in the 23 touchbacks, the two kickoffs out of bounds and the one onside kick and WVU surrendered 120.1 yards per game in kickoff returns.
That's a lot more than 0.
"I don't know what the answer is yet," DeForest said. "You have to work with the guys you have. We might not have a guy who can put it in the end zone, but we have guys who are good at other things we want to do."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.