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2014 Mountaineers Football Unit Previews: Special Teams

Special teams could be special in 2014 for WVU.

Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

The special teams for the 2013 Mountaineers can be grouped in two categories. The first is when WVU was kicking the ball. The second was when the other team was kicking the ball. The punt and kickoff coverage teams were first and second  respectively in the Big 12. The kick and punt return teams finished last and last in the Big 12. The first group needs to stay the course and make minor adjustments. The second needs to burn every piece of training material and film, and start with a clean slate.

If you're going to talk special teams for WVU you need to start with Nick O'Toole. Boomstache ,as he's known to WVU fans, had one of the best years any punter every had for the Mountaineers in 2013.  It was the second most yards punted in a season, 3,218. Trailing only Todd Sauerbrun's incredible 1994 season in which he punted for 3,519 yards. To put it into perspective, Sauerbrun punted 74 times for a 47.5 yard average while O'Toole punted 73 times with a 44 yard average.

In the macho world of college football you don't really want your punter to be one of the stars of the team. But that was part of the 2013 story. O'Toole was 2nd in the Big 12 in average yards per kick and 15th nationally. His mustache was all-world, of course.

Another part of the 2013 story was place kicker Josh Lambert. His numbers don't jump off the page quite the way O'Toole's do. But the freshman wasn't bad when you consider he was 1/5 from 50 yards+ and 16/18 from everywhere else. All while fighting through a pulled butt muscle.

He had a butt strain and a groin (injury)," DeForest said. "That whole tendon that goes up there was hurting. We had to shelve him the last part of the year during the week.

He's a hard worker by all accounts and is more of an athlete that kicks well. His measurable are off the chart for a kicker, like his 375-400lb bench press. Lambert was 6th in the Big 12 in FG% and 59th nationally.

Also of note last year was Mike Molinari. As mentioned earlier, WVU's kick coverage team was second in the Big 12 in net yards per kick. Individually, Molinari was third in the conference in average yards per kick, but next to last in touchbacks. I don't know how you do that other than being incredibly consistent. If you look at the numbers, you'll see kickers with lower averages with nearly double the touchbacks. It doesn't jive, but the end result is a positive for WVU.

Where West Virginia struggled last year on special teams and where they have to get better is in the return game. WVU was dead last in the Big 12 in punt return and kick return average. It wasn't all bad news, but the few bright spots were overshadowed by horrible things at the absolute worst time.

Like I said, it wasn't all bad news. Wendell Smallwood and Mario Alford were serviceable on kickoff returns, averaging 18 and 20 yards per return respectively. The duo should be the starting kick returners in 2014. Jordan Thompson and Vernon Davis will be the punt returners in 2014. The problem in 2013 was that the return teams rarely, if ever, gave the Mountaineers a short field to work with. WVU ranked 88th in field position advantage (Pitt ranked 89th). In a nutshell, that measures the field position advantage you have over your opponent. West Virginia was below 50%, which means their opponent usually had a shorter field to drive for a score. The average starting field position was the 29 yard line for the Mountaineers, while opponents started from their own 34 yard line.This statistic takes more into account than just kicks and returns. It includes turnovers and failed fourth down conversions. But given the efficiency of the kicking units for WVU and the near wash in turnover margin (-4), it's easy to see that the return game did us no favors in 2013.

You can blame at least part of the problem on the musical chairs amongst the return guys on punts and kickoffs last year. Much like the quarterback position, there never was a true number one guy on ether unit. Consequently, we all held our breath every time the ball was kicked WVU's way. Depth and injuries probably didn't help either.

The good news for 2014 is that there are several returners with experience coming back. With added depth, there's more competition. Not just for the returners, where incoming freshman quarterback William Crest has been fielding punts. But also for all the guys responsible for creating lanes to run through. Last year, you needed only to not be on the injured reserve list to make one of the special teams squads. This year, you'll have to beat someone out and earn it. The competition alone should deliver improvement.

The Mountaineers were close to winning a lot of games last year. It's not hard to imagine that a couple bounces going our way would have put us in a bowl game. Special teams can do that for us in 2014. Either by pinning our opponents deep or by giving the offense a short field. They have a real chance to make a difference and be special.