MORGANTOWN — You probably haven’t given this very much thought, but there’s a reason why special teams in football are deemed special teams.
To be good at it, it takes special skills to play on special teams.
We’ve all punted a football, but not like Nick O’Toole, who does it so well that his story was told over and over as he was the only punter invited to Big 12 Media Day this year … maybe ever.
We’ve all tried placekicking, too, and you know what? Those goal posts look to be about a yard and half wide and the crossbar 25 yards high from 30 yards out.
Yet Josh Lambert kicks football’s through them regularly from 40 to 50 yards out with the ball being snapped to a holder and chaos all around as opponents dive in and attempt to block the ball.
Do you remember Tavon Austin running back kicks?
“There are very few Tavon Austins that can make eight people miss,’’ West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen said recently. “They don’t block a soul and he makes eight people miss and goes and scores. There are very few of those guys.’’
Over the past couple of years, WVU’s special teams haven’t been all that special. Oh, O’Toole was cool a year ago and Lambert proved to be a budding star, but the return units … well, while Mario Alford emerged as a potential kickoff returner capable of bringing fans to their feet, the punt return unit finished 119th out of 123 teams in the FBS division.
Jordan Thompson was the return man. While he was surehanded, he was unable to break free.
He says he’s worked to improve that, built up his upper body for strength in the off-season, and doesn’t believe he’s just going to give that job up.
“In my mind, I’m breaking them,’’ Thompson said. “I visualize breaking them. In my mind, I have something to prove and I plan on doing it.’’
Make no doubt though, this deficiency has been noted, leading to the great experiment of the spring … a longshot, for sure, considering it involves freshman quarterback William Crest, a talent aimed at future stardom, returning punts.
When this was noticed at the first practice, it was thought to be something of “let’s keep the freshman busy and let him have some fun while he’s learning the QB position” move, an idea without legs, in part because you would not want anything to happen to Crest’s legs.
Holgorsen even decided he’d joke about it a bit, saying to the media with an impish smile, “I was just doing that to mess with you guys.”
But know what?
Holgorsen wasn’t messing around at all, as he would explain later.
“He did it in high school to stay in shape,” Holgorsen said. “Ball skills for a quarterback are important. Try catching snaps from (former center) Pat Eger. The snap could be anywhere. It’s all over the place. William has extremely large hands, which is a great sign of being able to spin the ball and have hand-eye coordination.”
Good hands are vital in punt returning, for a fumbled punt can turn a game or a season.
Ball security is the No. 1 skill.
Still, Holgorsen was surprised when punt drills began this year.
“The first practice — I looked down there, and he was catching punts. I was watching him, and I’d be darned if it didn’t look pretty good,” Holgorsen said.
Never one to shy away from the unconventional, Holgorsen continued watching, right there along with a very amused media corps.
“We need a punt returner so let’s see what you can do. He likes doing it, and so I said go do it,” Holgorsen said.
The question, though, is would Holgorsen actually risk using him back there?
“Would it be an option if he is the best one? Absolutely,” Holgorsen said. “If he was our starting, every-down quarterback, that’d be pretty silly (to have him return punts). You obviously want your starting quarterback to hone in on being the every-down starting quarterback.
“If he’s not the starting quarterback, and you have a luxury to have a little depth at QB, if he’s the best returning punts, then why not?”
OK, if Holgorsen is willing to do some experimenting there, would he be willing to stretch the limits on Lambert’s leg as a placekicker. Lambert has said he is capable of kicking field goals from 60 yards and Joe DeForest, the special teams coach, has seen it in practice.
“I don’t want to say they are clearing with ease, but they’re clearing by four or five yards,” DeForest said.
“What his distance is? I don’t know,” said Holgorsen when asked about letting him go from 60. “That’s one thing I’ll do before every game — every game after warmups, coach DeForest and I talk and he says, ‘When you’re going that way, you’re good from the 35-yard line, and when you’re going that way, you’re good from the 38-yard line.’ That’s how I gauge it, and if we’re on that number, I’ll send them in there and say ‘go kick.’”
So, when the wind’s at his back and the footing secure and WVU needs three points more than field position, you’re liable to see Lambert shoot for it from 60 … maybe even more likely than seeing Crest run back punts.
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel