Jeff Koonz Details Plan for Special Teams, Sees Ja’Shaun Poke as Solid Returner Option
Even though the problems on special teams didn’t get the attention as some of the other issues that occurred for WVU during the 2022 season, they were certainly there. And now special teams coordinator Jeff Koonz is tasked with cleaning things up and fill key roles to make field position a winning category for the Mountaineers.
Making sure West Virginia would be effective special teams wise will be easier said than done for Koonz. He will be without two key pieces in Bryce Ford-Wheaton and Sam James, who both embraced helping on special teams despite being offensive receiver threats.
“You got two upper-class men who are training to live their dream at the next level and both those guys improved their stock because of what they did on special teams,” said Koonz. The hope now for Koonz is the example they set, and since their work on special teams in college may help them as professionals, will trickle down and trigger others to step up.
He actually spoke about this scenario with excitement. “The exciting thing about that is we got a ton of young guys that are ready to fill into those roles.”
It’s also possible a completely new Mountaineer could be that guy who offers WVU a boost on special teams, at least as a returner. Transfer Ja’Shaun Poke was recruited with that exact thought in mind. Koonz touched on what he’s seen from Poke so far and if he feels the returner role would fit the former Kent State wide receiver.
“I’m gonna get a little bit more evaluation of him live (later in the spring), but off of film he’s exactly what you want. He’s got legit raw speed, he’s returned in raucous environments and I’m excited to see how he sees it. We haven’t necessarily had an issue with speed back there, it’s really just been seeing the holes and hitting the holes, there is a knack to it and he’s shown on tape he that knack,” explained Koonz on his current thought process about Poke.
Koonz made it clear no one gets any spot handed to them at West Virginia, and that’s the case with Poke too. But based on his early evaluation and his experience, it’s very likely Poke’s greatest impact on the WVU offense will be as the team’s lead kickoff returner. Poke returned 15 kickoffs last season for an average of 27.4 yards per return and accumulating 411 total yards produced.
If Not Poke, Who Else Could Koonz Turn To?
“We’re trying to build a big pool, as many as we can. We’ve got a bunch of guys, a bunch of our running backs — Justin Johnson, Tony Mathis, Jaylen Andseron — bigger guys, tougher to tackle, along with Poke, (Andrew) Wilson-Lamp a guy that can truly run. Davis Mallinger will be another guy that’s gonna have that opportunity,” Koonz responded when asked the other options besides Poke.
What About for Punts?
Koonz was also asked if Preston Fox will remain the primary punt returner this season. While he wouldn’t commit to that being the case, he did compliment Fox. But Koonz is confident he has multiple options for the punt returner position as well.
“Punt return, Preston has picked up where he left off, I think he got to the end of the year there where we saw what he can do against Oklahoma State when he’s given a seam… so he’s kinda been the bell cow on that,” he said. Koonz then mentioned another transfer in Montre Miller, ironically also from Kent State.
“We do have some other guys that were trying out there, Montre Miller is one that has done it before that we’re giving a look back there, then there’s probably a good four, five other guys, but Preston has done a good job.”
Special Teams Isn’t Just About the Return Game
Figuring out who will be relied on to set the offense up after kickoffs and punts isn’t the only priority for Koonz. Another aspects of West Virginia’s special teams that stood out, sometimes in a negative way in 2022, was stopping the opposing returners. This was actually most evident in a game the Mountaineers won handily. Towson managed to run a kickoff back for a touchdown, prompting head coach Neal Brown to express his frustration in letting an FCS opponent get on the board and do so due to mistakes on special teams.
On the work being put in as far as stopping the opposing returners, Koonz explained he does think that unit improved as the season progressed last year, but realizes it still has to be an area of emphasis moving forward.
“I think we saw improvement from the Towson game and there were some guys in some situations, especially on the one that they brought back, that we had some guys in there that it was there first time playing. It’s not excuse, they’re out there, they are representing all of us. Some of the guys that were on the field for that play came on as the year went on and really helped us and made plays as the year went on,” said Koonz about the progress made throughout last season.
He continued. “At the end of the day, kick location is important and everything is tied together so there’s that aspect of that as well. Now that has been a huge emphasis in the offseason. Those competitions have started. Today [Tuesday] was our second day of those kickoff return. How guys are running down the field. How guys are defeating blocks. You know, that’s critical. But our big things is to make that unit as simple as possible where guys can really really run down fast, be physical at the point of attack, get off blocks and go make plays,” Koonz offered as his plan.
Replacing Casey Legg
To pile more on Koonz’s plate, he’s tasked with making sure the Mountaineers don’t miss a beat when it comes to the kicking game. With Casey Legg deciding to retire, WVU will have a new kicker in 2023. That’s where transfer Michael Hayes comes in. Hayes’ booming leg will provide the power West Virginia needs, granted having the accuracy of Legg may be a tall task.
Michael Hayes Fell in Love with West Virginia Despite Interest from Other Major Programs
Hayes converted 11 out of 14 field goal tries in 2022, highlighted by a 51-yarder. He has two more years of remaining eligibility.
It’s safe to say Koonz has his work cut out for him throughout the rest of the offseason, but at least he can rest assured he has continuity in one aspect of the special teams – punter Oliver Straw. The Australian brown Straw had a stellar season as a freshman and should continue that on with more seasoning as time goes by.