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Meet the Mountaineers: New Specialists Have Big Shoes to Fill

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Meet the Mountaineers is a series previewing every position on West Virginia’s football team for 2020. Every day we will focus on a different position group and look at all the players we will see there in 2020. Yesterday we finished up the defense by looking at the safeties. Today is the final installment of this series, talking all about WVU’s specialists.

West Virginia has to replace a lot of important players from the 2019 team heading into this new season. 

Beyond replacing both starting offensive tackles or both starting cornerbacks, the two positions on the roster that might end up being the hardest for the Mountaineers to replace also happen to be two positions that are often the least talked about; punter and long snapper.

It is no stretch to say that WVU had one of the best long snapper/punter duos in the entire nation last season. In fact, punter Josh Growden was on the Ray Guy Award watchlist and long snapper Rex Sunahara was a semifinalist for the Patrick Mannelly Award. Aside from awards, it is Growden and Sunahara’s production on the field that head coach Neal Brown and new special teams coordinator Jeff Koonz will have trouble replacing.

The Mountaineers had one of the best special teams units in the nation last season, spearheaded by Growden and the punt coverage team. Growden punted 68 times in 2019, three went for touchbacks, one was blocked and 32 were fair caught. WVU had just 16 punts returned all season long. If you take out a 70-yard punt return by TCU’s Jalen Reagor in the season finale, WVU’s opponents average just two yards per return on punts.

Growden was one part of why WVU’s punt coverage was so effective last year. Another part was because the Mountaineers had a secret weapon, the unusually athletic long snapper, Sunahara. 

“We’re able to do some things on punt team because of his athleticism that other team’s can’t do,” Brown said of Sunahara during the season. “He’s been a weapon. It’s almost unheard of for your long snapper to be one of your leading tacklers on your punt team, and he’s done that.”

The 6-foot-6 Sunahara did not start his college career as a long snapper instead, he played wide receiver and power forward at Rhode Island. That kind of athleticism is unique at the long snapper position and it is that unique athleticism that will be so hard to replace this fall.

There are two long snappers on the roster for 2020, senior Kyle Poland and sophomore J.P. Hadley. Before senior day last season, Sunahara said either one of them could win the job for 2020.

“Whoever the punter is next year is going to be in great hands, holder’s going to be in great hand,” Sunahara said. “I think it’s going to be a really good competition. Competition brings out the best in everyone.”

Koonz, who will be overseeing all of WVU’s special teams this season, has a similar view of competition.

“Competition, competition, every rep is going to count, that’s how you create everything, doesn’t matter what position,” Koonz said after he was hired. “We do have very capable people (to long snap) in-house right now.”

At punter Brown brought in a familiar face to replace Growden, Troy transfer Tyler Sumpter. Sumpter handled both the placekicking and punting duties while Brown was the head coach of the Trojans in 2017 and 2018, and again in 2019 after Brown had left. For kicking, WVU returns both 2019 starter Evan Staley and backup Casey Legg.

Key Departures:

Josh Growden – Graduation

Rex Sunahara – Graduation

Returning Players (2019 Stats):

Kickers

R-Sr. Evan Staley (11-17 FGM, 44 long)

R-So. Casey Legg (2-4 FGM, 51 long)

R-Fr. Kolton McGhee

Punters

R-So. Evan Matthes

R-Fr. Leighton Bechdel

Long Snappers

R-Sr. Kyle Poland (1 tackle)

R-So. J.P. Hadley

Additions:

Sr. Tyler Sumpter – Troy

Camp Battles:

Kicker could honestly be one of the more interesting battles in camp this summer. Staley has much more experience than Legg, who has attempted just four in-game field-goals in his entire life, but Legg has shown that he may have the stronger leg of the two. Staley went 3-8 on field goals longer than 40 yards last season and did not even make an attempt from 50-plus, whereas one of Legg’s two makes was from 51 yards. In the final five games of the season, Legg had also completely taken over kickoff duties from Staley.

At long snapper, Koonz made it sound like it will be a straight-up battle between Hadley and Poland. Simply whoever snaps the best in camp will get to do it in games.

Projected Starters:

R-Sr. Evan Staley – Kicker

Sr. Tyler Sumpter – Punter

R-Sr. Kyle Poland – Long Snapper

I think Staley will stay on as the team’s primary placekicker, but I could see Legg acting as a sort of situational weapon, handling the long kicks and kickoffs. Sumpter is pretty easy to peg as the starter, I doubt Brown would bring him onto the team for one season and he not be the punter. I have no idea how long snappers are evaluated, but Brown has shown that he values experience in the past and as a fifth-year senior, Poland has the edge over Hadley.

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Cody spent the last two years getting his master's degree in journalism from WVU. He graduated from Slippery Rock University in 2018 with a degree in digital media production. He was born and raised in Mercer, Pennsylvania.

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