This is the first of eight previews looking at WSU’s position-by-position prospects for the upcoming season. Today: Special teams. Sunday: Quarterbacks
PULLMAN – After two seasons of stability in the kicking game Washington State enters 2014 unsure how its specialists will perform, or even who they will be.
Gone is reliable Andrew Furney, who is trying to find a home in the NFL after making 45 starts at WSU and hitting 77 percent of his field goals. Gone is punter Mike Bowlin, who was not always consistent but was consistently the Cougars’ best option, starting 23 games in two years at WSU. Even the return game is in flux with the departure of Leon Brooks, whose average of 9.0 yards per punt return was No. 3 in the Pac-12 last season.
At place-kicker, Erik Powell appears ready to take over after a redshirt season. Powell made 25 of 28 field goals in the spring. After some early struggles in fall camp, Powell seemed to regain his rhythm.
“He’s got a strong leg, just a redshirt freshman,” special teams coordinator Eric Russell said. “I think he’s got a bright future and I like his mentality and his mindset and his ability to bounce back from something bad and that’s what you’ve got to have at that position.”
However, the coaches seem reluctant to throw too much at him and kept him at 40 yards and under in fall camp. In short, don’t expect Powell to try and match Furney’s 61-yarder from last season, even if he can come close in practice.
“Erik can go out and hit one from that distance,” Russell said. “I don’t know how accurate it’s going to be, how consistent.”
And that dependability is crucial for the Cougars coaches. It’s what they lacked in punting last year with Bowlin, who had plenty of leg, as evidenced by his 68-yard punt against Oregon State, the second-longest in the Pac-12 last season, but had only the conference’s 10th-best average thanks to duds like his 3-yarder at Arizona.
Russell says the competition to replace him between junior Wes Concepcion and freshman Jordan Dascalo is “wide open,” while acknowledging that Concepcion – who started the final two games of last season due to Bowlin’s struggles – has the edge in consistency.
Concepcion punted 12 times last season with an average punt of 36.2 yards. In the New Mexico Bowl, he punted four times, averaging 41.0 yards per punt and downing one inside the 20-yard line.
“Right now for a freshman (Descalo) has got a great operation time, probably faster than Wes right now,” Russell said. “Wes probably has him a little right now on overall average because Wes has been a little more consistent, but Jordan’s got him on hang time so it’s a heck of a battle.”
Even if Concepcion wins the job, Russell says that bringing a competitor has forced the incumbent to improve and that having another option was necessary because Concepcion’s numbers last season, “weren’t what you anticipate from a Pac-12 guy.”
Still, Dascalo’s leg power is enticing. On his first day of punt coverage drills with the team during fall camp, the freshman basically wrecked the drill during one repetition by sailing the ball far beyond the returner’s head, a kick coach Mike Leach called, “one of the longest punts I’ve ever seen.”
“Right now we’re looking for consistency, but he’s got a real powerful leg and I’m impressed with him,” Leach said. “Goes out there confident, not much anxiety and just pops it, and can really kick it a long ways.”
The Cougars appear content to wait and see who emerges on the return teams. In finding a replacement for Brooks, the Cougars appear to be going young, with freshmen Marcellus Pippins, Jamal Morrow and Robert Lewis seeing extensive time, and sophomore receiver River Cracraft getting some reps as well.
Those players have also seen time on the kickoff return teams, along with freshman receiver Calvin Green and senior Kristoff Williams.