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WVU Special Teams Update: Beanie Bishop vs. Ja’Shaun Poke, Michael Hayes Booming Kicks



WVU Special Teams Kicker Michael Hayes

The offense and defense may grab most of the headlines, but WVU’s special teams could have just as much of an impact on the season ahead. West Virginia’s special teams unit will also look a lot different in 2023 than it did one season ago.

After first being asked about the quarterback competition, WVU head coach Neal Brown then had his attention turned to another key position battle and a transfer the Mountaineers will likely rely on heavily. This position battle is on special teams and for the role of the main kickoff and punt returner.

West Virginia knows field position is a category they must be much better in all throughout the season. WVU finished in towards the bottom of the Big 12 in both the kickoff and punt return game in 2022.

Continually starting drives far back in your own territory is a disadvantage a team led by an inexperienced quarterback can’t afford to endure. Special teams coordinator Jeff Koonz has been tasked with ensuring field position is no longer an issue moving forward.

The Returner Battle is Down to Bishop vs. Poke

Fortunately for Koonz, the solution for WVU will come in the gift of one of the program’s new transfers. On Thursday, Brown announced cornerback Beanie Bishop and wide receiver Ja’Shaun Poke are currently competing to be the team’s main returner.

Brown said he likes what both of them bring to the table, especially their speed, and the job will go to one of them before the season kicks off in State College. He classified the efforts of Bishop and Poke as “schematically different” to his main 2022 returner Preston Fox.

Bishop is expected to be a factor on defense either way, but being the returner could be Poke’s ticket to having an impact on games.

Koonz immediately knew Poke had the potential to be his return guy. This is what he said about the Kent State transfer early in the spring.

“I’m gonna get a little bit more evaluation of him live, 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.”

What About the New Kicker?

Just as important as the returner, is the kicking game. And to replace Casey Legg, who decided to retire from football at the occlusion of last season, West Virginia signed transfer Michael Hayes.

Even though Hayes is transferring up from Georgia State to WVU, it’s fair to say a kicker either has it in him or he doesn’t. He picked the Mountaineers over offers from other solid programs.

Michael Hayes Fell in Love with West Virginia Despite Interest from Other Major Programs

Replacing a kicker like Legg who was one of the most accurate in the country won’t be easy, but it sounds as if Brown likes what he’s been seeing from Hayes.

“Michael Hayes had a good day. He had a 51-yarder on Saturday to close practice. He had another one today. And we didn’t measure it, but it looked 45-50 in that range,” Brown offered about Hayes.

The one aspect of WVU’s special teams that isn’t changing at all is punting. In the less glamorous punter spot is again Oliver Straw, the Australian native coming off a stellar freshman season in Morgantown.

“I think our punter has the chance to be elite,” said Brown about Straw entering his second season. The rest of the country seems to agree with Brown’s sentiments too. Straw has been placed on the preseason watch list for the Ray Guy Award.

Special teams can swing a season one way or another. Struggling on special teams can ruin a game, just as a big return or a significant edge in field position can help steal a game as well.

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