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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

WSU football: Special teams play must improve for Cougars

Gabe Marks could return kicks for Cougars this season. (Tyler Tjomsland)

PULLMAN – There is no mystery to the special teams touchdown at Washington State; the Cougars saw enough examples of punts and kicks returned for scores last season to testify in front of a jury as experts on the subject.

Receiver Gabe Marks, who ran a few back in high school, can walk you through a successful return.

“You’ve got to be fast and stuff like that, obviously,” Marks said. “But it’s more about the guys in front of you. You’ve got to make them want to lay it on the line for you. That’s one of the most dangerous plays is kickoff, kick return. Those guys have to trust that if they sell out for you, you’re going to reward them.”

But there’s a difference between knowing how to accomplish a deed and being able to do it. And though the Cougars saw opponents return three kickoffs and three punts for touchdowns last season, enough to lead the country in each category, it’s been a decade since WSU fans got to cheer for either.

The last time the Cougars scored on special teams was when Michael Bumpus reeled off an 87-yard punt return against Nevada in 2005. Bumpus scored on punt returns three times during his WSU career.

The Cougars haven’t returned a kickoff for a touchdown since 2003 when Sammy Moore returned one 97 yards against Colorado.

Special teams coordinator Eric Mele was brought into the role last season after the midseason dismissal of Eric Russell – the pink-slip given the day after the Cougars gave up consecutive kickoffs returned for touchdowns in a 60-59 loss to California.

If not for special teams errors, the Cougars certainly would have won that game. If not for two return touchdowns, the Cougars may have had a shot in their 59-37 loss to Arizona, and narrowly overcame a punt return touchdown given up in their 28-27 win at Utah.

“The thing that has to be considered (about special teams), is on a single play, with rare exception, it’s got the potential to have the highest exchange of yards,” said coach Mike Leach.

So Mele has the difficult task of drastically improving what was one of the country’s worst units at preventing those high- impact plays, and bringing back those same game- changing plays that have been missing in Pullman.

As Marks alluded to earlier, it’s all about the players. For a return to be special, a team needs 10 people who can hold a block and one return man that can take advantage. To stop those plays, all 11 players need to be willing to sell out during the game’s most violent seconds.

“Kick returns, it’s a hard job,” Colton Teglovic, who is highly regarded by coaches for his play on special teams, said. “Everybody’s got to get on their block and hold their block – it’s a long play. You’ve got to stick with your guy for a long time to allow a returner to hit that seam and get upfield.”

Mele says that he wants to create a culture in which the players that create lanes for the returner get just as much credit for a big play as the ball carrier.

“It’s exciting to make that play,” Mele said. “If we go back and watch the film, the returner follows your block and you pancaked somebody, that’s on you. You assisted on a touchdown.”

As far as making this year better than last, Mele says that the personnel are “way ahead of where we were last year,” and that “last year we were kind of searching for a guy here or there to put in,” but that now he has nearly two units worth of players he is confident can be effective.

The Cougars don’t shy away from allowing their best players to contribute on special teams, and the kickoff unit is currently a mix of first- and second-team players. And Leach has long said that the best players he’s ever coached are typically the stars that also want to be on the field for kicks, as well.

“Most special teams guys, they enjoy it,” Teglovic said. “It’s fun, your adrenaline’s going, you’re going full speed. The stadium’s screaming and they’re high impact plays.”