The title is my way of implying that the kicking game has been beaten to death this off-season, and probably rightfully so. Outside of possibly offensive line play and short yardage situations (which go hand-in-hand), the complete failure at kick coverage was our Achilles heel last year. But this is a new year, and Coach Stewart is giving it a lot of attention, both on the field and in the media.
As our friend Mike Cassaza mentions in today's Daily Mail:
The team is in shells today and full pads Wednesday. Coach Bill Stewart said the focus will soon go to kickoff coverage, which was a major weakness last year. The Mountaineers allowed 28 yards per return and ranked No. 117 out of 119 Division I-A teams..
We averaged nearly a full 7 yards less on our own kickoffs -- once a strength -- than we allowed to opponents. Not good.
Well that begs the question then: how do we fix it?
"I think we need to implement some things I saw just to add to our repertoire," he said. "We'll let both guys kick and see, but I'm more into hang time now. It used to be you wanted to see them kick it out. They'll bring it out now. I want to know more about hang time."
When was the last time you saw a team take a kneel three yards deep in the end zone? How about five yards deep? It just doesn't happen anymore. And when you try to bust a kick-off through the touchline but don't quite hit it right, you've now left your team covering a line drive kick that just didn't fly far enough. But still, we had one of the strongest legged kickers in the nation -- something else must have been wrong.
Before we get to that, let me first mention this: Stew was not only the first-year head coach last year, he was the special teams coordinator. It's something that needs pointed out. But that's not to say that this dreadful performance was necessarily all Stew's fault.
As Cassaza continues:
It appears there will be a new philosophy, which means straying from the schemes that once were so valued by the Mountaineers, who ranked No. 9 in 2006, No. 36 in 2005 and No. 17 in 2004. Stewart said he traveled throughout the off-season to find ways to get better and won't waste that experience.
If you're going to point out that Stew was special teams coordinator last year, like I just did, you'll also need to remember that Stew was special teams coordinator during these very good years.
OK, so what happened? What dropped us from hanging around the top 25 to hanging around the bottom 25 in this one area?
Stew, in different press conferences and quotes, has hinted that personnel became an issue. When you consistently recruit small, fast players, you're naturally going to give up some bulk and toughness. Kickoff coverage is one area where that's really going to show. Now, at no point are we going to recruit players solely to cover kicks, but you still need to have some guys that are going to give their mind, body, and soul to stopping that returner, be it scholarship players or walk-ons. It won't happen in one season, but Stew seems to believe that we're moving in the right direction (though, fairly, when does he not)?
Also, credit the old dog for learning new tricks. Not too much credit, because after ranking third from last, something had to change; but still, changing an philosophy must be a tough thing to do for a 56 year old football coach. And because of the changes (overhaul?) being made, kick coverage will be a huge litmus test for this coaching staff. if they are able to drastically improve the kick coverage, then their skill at correcting wrongs will start to be proven. And really, if that happens, it most likely means good things for offensive line and short yardage.