West Virginia 2016 Preview: Special Teams

8th in a 10-part series previewing West Virginia’s football team ahead of the upcoming season.

The 8th installment of our season preview will cover our Special Teams unit, and compared to the others, should be relatively short and to the point. West Virginia graduated up-and-down punter Nick O’Toole, but brings back kicker Josh Lambert and pair of solid return men, and should be just fine in the third phase.

THE KICKERS

West Virginia currently lists 4 kickers on the roster, but the incumbent and probable starter (at least at some point) will be redshirt senior Josh Lambert. Lambert is a 3-year starter and with a decent senior season will probably become the school’s all-time leader in both points scored and field goals made. He regressed a bit last year after being a Groza Award finalist as a sophomore, but has a great leg (6 career 50+ yarders) and in general has been both reliable and clutch throughout his time in Morgantown. Unfortunately though, he’s also suspended for the first 3 games of the season, so for the month of September his responsibilities will pass to someone else.

The guy currently in line to step in is redshirt junior Mike Molina of Hurricane, WV. Molina has seen action in 5 career games, but has never attempted a FG. He’s been decent on kickoffs (62.7 yard average) and is 2/2 on extra points, but we’ll have to wait and see how he handles himself in a game situation.

The other 2 kickers are the Evans Stire and Staley, a pair of true freshmen from Morgantown and Romney respectively. Both of these guys will probably be redshirted and barring injury won’t see the field this fall.

THE PUNTERS

The punter position brings a bit more uncertainty. Nick O’Toole could be a bit inconsistent at times, but ended up 2nd in the Big 12 in yards per punt last year at 45.4, so replacing him won’t be an easy task.

The assumed starter since spring has been Billy Kinney, a redshirt sophomore from Morgantown. Kinney didn’t feature at all last year, but averaged 42 yards per punt his senior year in high school, a decent number which you’d expect has crept up a few yards during his 2 years in the program.

However, Kinney has recently been facing a strong push from true freshman John Young for the starting job. Young has been turning heads since arriving on campus in late June, and is now considered at worst the 1b to Kinney’s 1a.

It’ll be interesting to watch how this competition shakes out over the next few weeks. The coaches have been very political in praising both guys and are insisting that whoever looks “the most comfortable” will start, but I suspect that they wouldn’t hate it if Young ends up winning the job (scholly vs walk-on).

THE RETURNERS

Now for the fun part. Last year was one of the first in a while that Mountaineer fans didn’t feel the need to watch our guys catch punts and kickoffs through concerned fingers, and fortunately we bring back both of the guys responsible for that unfamiliar confidence.

Gary Jennings and Shelton Gibson will field punts and kicks respectively, and both figure to be improved in their second full year in each job. Jennings has earned the nickname “Mr. Reliable” from receivers coach Tyrone Carrier, which makes me feel good about him continuing to be the guy we trust back there, while Gibson is a burner who housed a kick last year and was 4th nationally in return average. I don’t think it’s unfair of us to expect a couple big plays in the return game this year.

THE COVERAGE UNIT

It’s hard to tell exactly who will be doing what, so I don’t really know how to do a full section, but I expect a lot of younger guys to be out there. We have people like Reese Donahue, Logan Thimons, and David Long who will definitely contribute but may not be quite ready for full-time work, and I expect them to shine on special teams. We also have a plenty of JUCO defensive backs who could use coverage duties as a way to get used to the speed of the game. In either case, with the increased level of overall talent and depth we should have better guys than ever out there covering kicks and punts.

POSITION GRADE: 4/5

In general, there’s not a ton not to like. Punter is the biggest question mark, but Billy Kinney’s 42 yard high school average would’ve been good for Top 50 (literally 50th, but still) in the country in college last year, so you figure if he’s improved at least a bit since then, and John Young is good enough to be pushing him, then we can reasonably expect at least one of them to be average. In reality that’s all your looking for from a punter. Having a great one is a nice luxury, but really you just don’t want them to suck.

At kicker, Mike Molina has shown enough promise that Holgorsen has said he can steal the job from Josh Lambert with a strong showing over the first few weeks, and even if he can’t, Lambert is a known commodity that’s won us games in the past.

And finally, we should be strong on both sides of the return game. We have our best big play threat and our most reliable receiver returning kicks and punts, and defensively we have a ton of young talent that I’m sure would love to dip their toes into some coverage duties. Those guys have to get on the field somehow, may as well let them sprint 50 yards and hit somebody.

Overall, I think we should be in pretty good shape, and have come a long way the Special Screams units of yesteryear.

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