The importance of having a strong special teams unit can be lost on fans, but the WVU football program itself has placed an emphasis on improving the unit to where it can be a factor on game days.
“With special teams as a whole, I really think we made a lot of progress this summer,” said special teams coordinator and inside linebacker coach Jeff Koonz. “I’m really excited about the group we have. Since I’ve been here, going into year three, we’re going to have the most available body types we need for the different components of all special teams. I think they’ve done a really good job of embracing special teams.”
While it’s tough to notice, a strong special teams unit can impact a game. Ignoring the obvious tangible impact an accurate kicker that can make a long field goal in clutch time would provide, the offensive and defensive units bare affected from the performance of specials teams.
It’s a huge advantage to be able to start drives in better field positioning than your opponent. Michigan last year led the national in kick return defense, only giving up an average 12.1 yards per return. Their kicker had 66 touchbacks last year with only 14 returns against them.
For comparison, WVU was 79th in kick return defense and had 41 returns to just 12 touchbacks. They gave up an average of 21.73 yards per return providing much better field position for WVU opponents than the top teams like Michigan.
It’s no difference for punt return defense. WVU finished 49th in that category last year giving up an average 6.45 yards per return. That may not seem like a lot, but that’s on just 11 punt returns as a fair catch isn’t included. Oklahoma State, the top defensive punt unit in the BIG12 conference had an opponent return a punt 20 times and only gave up a 0.80 yards per return average.
WVU last year did perform well in one aspect of special teams. They were 19th in kick return average with a 24.89 yards per return. They were third in the Big 12 in this category behind only Oklahoma State and Kansas State.
But the advantage that the unit provided on kick returns did not translate to punt returns. Out of 130 FBS teams, WVU was 126th in punt return average with just 3.11 yards per return.
So the only time WVU’s special team unit last year provided an advantage was on kick returns, which comes after their opponent had scored. It helps when trying to play from behind, but it doesn’t exactly give an advantage when the opponent is, more often than not, going to start with better field position than you are when the game is tied.
Alongside the emphasis being put on the entire team, they have made several changes to their specialists. Currently Oliver Straw (6-foot-2, 214-pounds) is in a battle for the punting duties with Kolton McGhee (6-foot, 187-pounds).
“They’re going back and forth,” said Koonz. “They both show the ability to push the ball down the field with great hang time. They’ve both had more consistent hang time than we’ve had in the past, so we’re excited about that.”
The team has also brought in a kick off specialist in Parker Grothaus (6-foot-2, 216-pounds) who transferred from Florida State. For returns the team lost their top two in Winston Wright and Isaiah Esdale to transfer and have been working in various players during camp.
Kicking wise the team does return kicker Casey Legg and long snapper Austin Brinkman. Legg was fourth in the Big 12 in conversion rate last year going 16-19 on field goals, good for a 82.61%.