WVU football: Mountaineers face dynamic special teams duo
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- Tre Walker made 47 tackles as a true freshman in 2010 and made Phil Steele's freshman All-America team. He added 52 tackles as a sophomore at Kansas State and was on track for more of the same a year ago before an ankle injury ended his season.
There have been many times in four seasons when he picked himself up off the ground and moved onto the next play as one snap blends into the next. One tackle before his sophomore year -- one not involving an opponent, but rather teammate Tyler Lockett -- stands out so many years later.
"When he was a freshman, I stuck him pretty good in a camp practice, but I was just surprised I did it because he's that elusive," Walker said. "His ability to make people miss in the open field and his ability to just outrun everybody on defense or on kickoffs is just unbelievable."
Lockett is one of the best return men in the nation, let alone the Big 12, and he's become a dangerous receiver in his junior season. Yet he might not be the most dynamic of the Wildcats at either, a reality West Virginia (3-4, 1-3 Big 12) will discover in Saturday's 3:45 p.m. game against Kansas State (2-4, 0-3).
In the Fox Sports 1 game at Bill Snyder Family Stadium, the Mountaineers will encounter Lockett on kickoffs and as the shallow return man on punt returns, plus punt returner Tramaine Thompson. Lockett was the preseason all-Big 12 kick returner pick while Thompson was the preseason punt returner pick.
"They're both elusive, but Tramaine is tremendously quick and Lockett has the speed," safety Ty Zimmerman said. "Those are the two hardest guys to guard on our team.
I have a lot of respect for how they go about their business, but I have a lot of respect for the guys who have to go against them."
Lockett entered the season with four kickoff return touchdowns and an average of 33.75 yards per return. He's only ranked No. 55 nationally this season, but he's only had eight opportunities to return a kickoff. He averages 22.8 yards per attempt.
Thompson doesn't have enough attempts to qualify for national rankings, but he's averaged 33.75 yards on his four returns - and 56 yards on two kickoff returns. Kansas State leads the nation in punt returns.
"You just try to get the return started and they do the rest," Zimmerman said. "We call returns to sides or whatever, but sometimes they just see something and hit it. Tramaine switches fields a lot. Lockett does the same thing. It's really about getting them started and letting them go from there."
WVU has been solid with punt return defense (No. 29 nationally, 4.64 yards per return) and net punting (No. 3), thanks in large part to junior college transfer Nick O'Toole, but has struggled with kickoff return defense (No. 91, 23.09 yards per return). In last week's loss to Texas Tech, the Mountaineers trailed 13-0, but worked to a 20-13 lead before promptly giving up a 52-yard kickoff return that set up a field goal and got the Red Raiders going again.
"The key is knowing the other 10 people out there want to be out to there to block for me or to block for Tramaine," Lockett said. "Knowing those 10 guys have a passion for blocking and aren't saying, 'Oh, I was just thrown out here for special teams,' you know good things are going to go come out of it. Having a passion and a desire to go out there and treat special teams the same as offense and defense is what makes us so successful."
It helps to scare the opposition, too. Teams game plan around the 5-foot-11, 175-pound Lockett and the 5-8, 165-pound Thompson with directional kicks and sky kicks, but Lockett and Thompson still get to the ball and tend to do something with it in their hands.
They do it on offense, too.
The Wildcats have reverted somewhat to the offense that was so good to them the past few seasons with Colin Klein running as the quarterback. The duties have been split among sophomore Daniel Sams and junior college transfer Jake Waters, who passed for 3,501 yards and 39 touchdowns at Iowa Western last season. Sams leads the team with 86 attempts, 522 yards, 6.07 yards per carry and seven scores. Waters has run 53 times for 151 yards and two touchdowns.
Lockett has three 100-yard receiving games, though, including a 237-yard game against Texas. He has 475 yards total with a 15.32-yard average on 31 receptions. Thompson has one 100-yard game and 185 yards on 13 receptions.
Neither has been healthy, though. Thompson has missed the past two games and Lockett missed the last game. Both are expected to start for the Wildcats against WVU, which might want to heed the advice of those who know them best.
"Don't close your eyes," Walker said. "If you had a video camera on even the best defensive players in this league, when they get ready to make tackles they close their eyes just about every time before making a tackle. A lot of guys go up and try to fit it up, but they close their eyes and try to hit them. But as soon as they do that they move and they can go. You have to keep your eyes open and make sure you can see it if you want to hit it."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.