West Virginia has been burned by Kansas State the past two years on special teams and coach Dana Holgorsen wants to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
Holgorsen said the Mountaineers (3-0) are doing extensive work on kickoffs and punts ahead of Saturday’s game against Kansas State (2-1) in their Big 12 opener in Morgantown.
“Our goal is to not get beat on special teams, and that’s a huge goal this week,” Holgorsen said.
For good reason. Dominique Heath is the latest threat for Kansas State when the ball changes possession. Heath already has a 75-yard punt return TD this season and has caught two passes for scores.
In 2014, Tyler Lockett scored on a 43-yard punt return against the Mountaineers. Punter Nick O’Toole was supposed to kick the ball to the right, but Lockett fielded the ball on the other side of the field and scored untouched. At wide receiver, Lockett caught 10 passes for 196 yards in the 26-20 win.
Holgorsen told Lockett after the game the coach was glad he was graduating.
But the special teams follies continued. Last year, the Wildcats’ Morgan Burns returned a kickoff 97 yards in the fourth quarter for the go-ahead touchdown in a 24-23 victory. Burns also had a 67-yard kickoff return earlier in the game to set up another score.
Cranking out special teams stars “probably has something to do with the scheme and their emphasis in how they coach it,” Holgorsen said, giving credit to Sean Snyder, the Wildcats’ special teams coordinator since 2011.
“Sean Snyder is as good as there is,” Holgorsen said. “We have to be on guard, and we have to work hard this week in countering what he’s going to be able to do.”
West Virginia did not renew the contract of special teams coordinator Joe DeForest after last season. This year those responsibilities went to second-year assistant coach Mark Scott.
Holgorsen has been pleased with how his team has handled punt returning and chasing after punt returners so far. It’s kickoffs that have him concerned. West Virginia is average when it comes to returns and is next-to-last in the Big 12 in yards allowed per kickoff.
Last week against BYU, kicker Mike Molina didn’t have a kickoff for a touchback after having seven in the previous two games. One of his kickoffs went out of bounds. The Mountaineers twice gave up long kickoff returns.
“Our hang time was bad. Our ball placement was bad,” Holgorsen said. “We put our defense in bad situations by not being able to cover kicks the appropriate way.”
Holgorsen said he plans to change the players he uses on kickoffs, too.
“There are some guys out there who weren’t ready to play yet,” he said.
Josh Lambert returns this week from a three-game suspension for an undisclosed violation of Big 12 rules. Two years ago, Lambert was a finalist for the Lou Groza Award, given to the nation’s top placekicker. Holgorsen said Lambert will split kicking duties with Molina, who was 5 of 6 on field goals.
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