Jeffery Pooler, Exree Loe and Jalen Thornton (lr) from West Virginia form the protective wall in front of the punter Tyler Sumpter
Neal Brown has put a lot of emphasis on improving the mountaineering specialty teams in his first two seasons as WVU head coach, but so far that focus hasn’t paid off.
Granted, West Virginia’s specialty teams are better now than they were in the Dana Holgorsen era, but it’s only been small steps so far.
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Kickoff and punt coverage – Except for a few cases, West Virginia’s coverage teams have been very good last season.
The WVU abandoned a 92-yard touchdown kickoff return against Kansas and also allowed a 42-yard kickoff return to Kansas State. That being said, West Virginia didn’t give up a kickoff return more than 27 yards last season. The longest punt return WVU approved in 2020 was nine meters.
The climbers gave up 0.7 yards per punt return last year, which was the third best mark in the Big 12. They also allowed 19.0 yards per kickoff return, which was particularly impressive because they rarely had a break on a kickoff. The WVU had a Big 12 low seven touchback on their 52 kickoffs (something that qualifies for the “bad” category), so the reporting unit rarely rested on a kickoff.
West Virginia wasn’t necessarily bad in these areas at the end of Holgorsen’s tenure, allowing 1.6 yards per punt return and 19.3 yards per punt return, but it has improved in everyone under Brown.
The WVU’s kickoff reporting unit was number 1 in the Big 12 in 2019 (net average of 41.3 Ypk) and number 2 (40.5 Ypk) last season.
West Virginia linebacker Exree Loe upsets kickoff coverage
Net Punting – As in 2019, West Virginia didn’t have the Big 12’s top punting average this season (40.3 ypp, 5th in the Big 12), but Brown’s emphasis on coverage, waiting time, and punt placement allowed the WVU to hit the net third place in the league jump-off. His net punt average of 38.8 ypp was only a shadow behind Kansas State No. 1 (39.2 ypp) and TCU (38.9 ypp).
WVU players Tyler Sumpter and Kolton McGhee only scored two touchbacks throughout the season, and 24 of their 46 boots were fairly caught, negating any return opportunities.
Kickoff and punt return – While West Virginia was generally fine in terms of kickoff returns under Holgorsen, punt returns didn’t matter. In the last two seasons of Hoolgorsen in Morgantown, it finished in the Big 12 in the last two.
WVU was still not very good in Holgorsen’s last two seasons, but it’s better. After averaging 4.6 yards per punt return in 2019, it improved to 5.0 in 2020, which was good enough for seventh place. This is an improvement over the recent past, but there is still a long way to go before it can be considered good.
The same applies to the mountaineers’ kickoff returns, where their average of 20.0 per attempt last season in the Big 12 was in seventh place.
Brown is hoping for some big games from his returnees to get his offensive going, but so far his units have not delivered such explosive moments.
West Virginia placekicker Evan Staley with a field goal attempt.
Use of multiple punters / kickers – Whether due to injuries or poor performance, the WVU was forced to use several players and placekickers last season.
Surely a trainer would prefer to choose a specialist who is very good at his job and stay with that person throughout the campaign.
Brown didn’t have that luxury, however.
At the placekicker, Evan Staley (6 of 9 at FGs) did most of the work in the first six games. He then suffered a knee injury attempting a kick-off against Kansas State and was out for the remainder of the season. Casey Legg (5 of 7 for FGs) then took over for Staley but had some problems in the late season and was eventually replaced by Tyler Sumpter (3 of 4 for FGs).
All were fine, combining 14 out of 20 field goals. That 70% conversion rate was the sixth in the Big 12.
The WVU also deployed two punters. Sumpter handled 37 of the tries, averaging 40.5 yards per try, but he gave Kolton McGhee (39.7 ypp) room for a couple of mid-season games when Brown was looking for more consistency.
In the end, none of the West Virginia placekickers or punters were bad, but the consistency would probably have been better if the climbers had just settled in with one man for each.