Who can forget when Dana Holgorsen, tired of fumbled punt returns, threw up his hands and did what all of us had said aloud in our sports corner of the world, "We’d be better off not having anyone back there to return kicks in the first place." The punt hit the turf and was touched by the opposing coverage team. At least there was no disaster. The past two seasons have been embarrassing for WVU, with four returners combining for six fumbled punts and a punt return unit ranked #115 nationally.
So, why might Special Teams get better this year? Plain and simple, recruiting. Sure, practice makes perfect, but long term success on an overall special teams unit requires much more. Punt fumbling aside, WVU hasn’t been the picture of talent depth compared to more successful programs. More successful recruiting classes produce deeper benches. A deeper bench means more guys need to get on the field to stay happy and sharp, and overall better guys will be getting on the field for special teams.
To get just how bad our special teams punt return and coverage teams have been the past couple of years, our kicking game is among the best in the country. Josh Lambert is a returning Groza Award finalist with ice in his veins, having finished last season with the second-most points in the nation. Lambert tied the NCAA record with 10 games in which he connected on multiple field goal attempts, and he holds the NCAA record for most field goals made of 40 yards or more in a season (16).
Nick O’Toole (a.k.a. Boomstache or "Boom Beard") is a really good punter and has the potential to be a great one. Even he has said last year was no where near his best. He was ranked #6 in Big 12 last year, but to hear Holgorsen describe it, O’Toole’s problem isn’t the strength of his leg but his focus to kick the ball to the right place for the coverage. That could make a big difference in our coverage if that’s the case, because while the WVU special teams unit has been bad at punt returns, we are worse at punt coverage (ranked #120 in FBS in 2014).
Finally, since hiring Joe DeForest, Coach Holgorsen has been trying to convince Mountaineer Nation that he's one of the best in the business. Even Holgy’s snarky comments to the media about the unit’s potential improvement were, in my opinion, an attempt to shift blame away from DeForest by understating the significance of the failure. "We caught punts for 25 minutes during practice and we will also work on Nick (O'Toole) punting the ball to where he needs to punt the ball. That will fix all our problems and we should win a national championship."
Haha, coach. "You’re right. We can suck on your mythical third side of the ball and it won’t yield a national championship." But it might yield a boost of energy and confidence that spurs a team to accomplish more than it believed it was capable of doing. It just might inspire a team to reach a bit deeper. So, yeah, Special Teams might just make the difference between a National Championship and not some day. But probably not with your pal coaching them.
Most can understand a learning curve that comes with a new work environment, and I'll give DeForest that our talent is deeper and better than it has been since Joe started leading his "Not-So-Special Teams" Unit (which seems odd to say since he had Tavon Austin for two years). However, as is the case with his supervisor, time is running out and the excuses are all used up. If WVU can't make marked improvement in special teams (and how can't we rise from 105th in the nation in punt returns), the "Fire DeForest" campaign will rage on out of control. And Dana won't have enough flame retardant to extinguish the calls to send his drinking buddy back to Oklahoma.