This is the seventh of eight previews looking at WSU’s position-by-position prospects for the upcoming season. Today: Special teams. Sunday: Quarterbacks.
PULLMAN – The old football truism that special teams account for one-third of a game of football – defense and offense also being of roughly equal importance – isn’t really true.
But even though special teams plays only comprised 307 of Washington State’s 2,245 plays in 2014 (13.7 percent), head coach Mike Leach says the adage isn’t far off.
“It holds close to true; it’s not quite a third of the plays but it’s extremely important,” Leach said. “I think it’s probably a fourth of the game.”
The Cougars have more room for growth in special teams than any other area except forcing turnovers, and to that end they have brought in three newcomers who appear set to start at three of the four most visible special teams positions.
In the return game, the focus will be on redshirt freshman Kyrin Priester, a Clemson transfer who will return punts, and Tavares Martin Jr., a true freshman from Florida who will return kickoffs. Priester, receiver Gabe Marks and running back Keith Harrington have also returned kickoffs in practice, but it appears Martin Jr. will get the first crack at it.
Martin Jr. is one of the team’s fastest players and Mele hopes that speed will allow him to take advantage of holes and creases before the opposing players get around WSU’s blockers.
Priester may not be quite as fast running in a straight line, but he’s a powerful player who can quickly get past or push aside the gunners who show up in a hurry during a punt return.
“With guys bearing down on you, (good punt returners) are able to stand in there amidst all that pressure,” Mele said. “They have to have good hands and have to want to attack and make plays for us. The kick returner, you can get behind blocks and know where the play is going to go. Really, I think the biggest thing is the fearlessness of a punt returner.”
A year ago, WSU’s punter, Jordan Dascalo, was able to boot the ball downfield and the Cougars had a respectable average of 41.6 yards per punt. But the WSU punt-cover team allowed 17.3 yards per return, worse than all but two other FBS teams.
Dascalo has since transferred to Eastern Washington and the Cougars hope freshman punter Zach Charme’s kicks are harder to return. Charme has improved consistently throughout camp and is able to regularly boot the football with good distance and hang time.
The lone returning starter is placekicker Erik Powell, who will handle both kickoffs and field goals. Powell began last year as WSU’s starting kicker but lost the job after missing three of his first five kicks. Powell gained weight in the offseason and, seemingly, leg strength along with it, regularly making kicks from 40-plus yards with room to spare.
He was a 3 for 3 in WSU’s first scrimmage and the Cougars have spent preseason camp putting pressure on him by assigning extra conditioning to bigger, more imposing teammates when he misses.
“It’s a great testament to him and the work that he has on his mental game,” Mele said. “It seems like he’s really focused on the task at hand, just one play at a time. We talk about it all the time: Every kick is a game kick.”