Cougars look for big gains in special teams
This is the seventh of eight position previews of Washington State’s 2012 football team. Today: special teams. Tuesday: quarterbacks.
PULLMAN – The reminders came often from Eric Russell, during punt coverage drills, punt return drills, kickoff coverage drills.
“Eleventh out of 12!” Russell would yell. “Eleventh out of 12!”
Washington State’s special teams coordinator was referring to his team’s conference ranking in a number of different categories – the Cougars were second-to-last in the conference in punt return and punt coverage last season, and were dead last in kickoff coverage.
And Russell made sure in the spring that his players were aware.
“If they want to know why we’re asking them to work and do the things that we do – asking certain players to do certain things – that’s how they’re going to be remembered when they look back some day and kind of see how they did,” Russell said after WSU’s practice on Sunday, one he termed sloppy and uninspiring. “So just reminding them when they’re feeling sorry for themselves of why it’s not acceptable and why it’s not where we want to be.”
Their effort, Russell said, has been up and down throughout camp. Part of the reason for that is the need to try different players at different spots, figuring out who can best help shore up the Cougars’ many deficiencies on special teams from a year ago.
Russell makes it clear it’s a work in progress.
“I wouldn’t see us improving much on punt return if we don’t get better than we were today,” he said.
Offensive and defensive starters will be relied upon. Russell rattles off names of players who will be responsible for producing on return and coverage teams, and they are all familiar faces. Deone Bucannon. Bobby Ratliff. Travis Long. Nolan Washington. Chester Su’a. Rickey Galvin.
Russell and other position coaches have made it clear that poor effort on special teams translates to sitting and watching on offense or defense.
But they have to be smart about how often they’re putting key players on the field.
“There are several guys that have been consistent, but we’ve got to be careful too with how we use them,” Russell said. “Can’t wear them out on every unit. Of course, I say that, but I see a couple teams we play that have got some starters that are playmakers on every unit, too. We’re going to do whatever we’ve got to do to compete.”
Kickoffs, perhaps, will not be as concerning. Junior college transfer Mike Bowlin has a strong enough leg to put the ball in the end zone on an average day – a task that has become easier thanks to new rules that bring kickoffs to the 35-yard line (though touchbacks now come out to the 25).
Bowlin will also handle the punting duties. Which means he has to rein himself in a bit.
“Sometimes when you kick it that far, we’re worrying about how far we’ve got to cover,” Russell said. “So we’re trying to find that fine line between him being smart and making sure we have enough elevation to get down and cover.”
Andrew Furney, who made 14 of 16 field-goal attempts last season, returns for his junior season and will again kick field goals and extra points. And Russell said that for now, it appears redshirt junior Leon Brooks will be the team’s primary punt returner, with true freshman Teondray Caldwell returning kicks.
Russell, who coached special teams and tight ends at Tennessee the past two seasons, is aided by a handful of other WSU assistants who have special-teams backgrounds.
Linebackers coach Jeff Choate often adds input, as he spent the past six seasons as Boise State’s special teams coach.
“The thing that’s hard to do as a first-year coach is to get all your fundamentals taught so you can really hone in on scheme,” Choate said. “And I always think that special teams is one of those phases where it usually takes a full year to transition your system. I think we’re ahead of the game.”