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WSU sees steady improvement in kick coverage under Eric Mele

Washington State head coach Mike Leach, center, and special teams coach Eric Mele speak before an NCAA college football game against Idaho in Pullman, Wash., Saturday, Sept. 17, 2016. (Young Kwak / Associated Press)
Washington State head coach Mike Leach, center, and special teams coach Eric Mele speak before an NCAA college football game against Idaho in Pullman, Wash., Saturday, Sept. 17, 2016. (Young Kwak / Associated Press)

PULLMAN – Washington State special teams coordinator is Eric Mele’s first full-time FBS assistant coaching gig, and as he has gotten more secure in his role, so have the Cougars.

Mele was promoted from offensive analyst in the middle of the 2014 season to find something, anything the Cougars could do to stop explosive plays by other teams in the return game. All those returns are what got his predecessor, Eric Russell canned.

Russell was a good coach who promptly got a plum gig at TCU and is doing quite well for the Horned Frogs. But for whatever reason, the special teams play fell apart at WSU in 2014, and Russell was fired the day after the Cougars gave up two kickoff returns for touchdowns in the third quarter of a one-point loss to California.

Enter, Mele.

The Cougars are by no means a special teams juggernaut, yet. But WSU has seen the steady improvement that Mike Leach preaches, particularly in kick off coverage.

In 2014 the Cougars allowed nine kickoff returns of more than 30 yards. In 2015 they allowed seven, a fairly middle-of-the-road number, and so far this year they have allowed just two.

Same thing on punts. In 2014 there were four punt returns against the Cougars that went 20 yards or more – only Arizona gave up more. In 2015, the Cougars gave up three such returns, and they have yet to allow one in 2016.

“I think we’re just learning what types of players we have and putting them in different positions, finding the drills that work the best for them,” Mele said. “Those guys really take ownership of themselves and that’s when the magic happens, when I don’t have to be the motivator and when they start competing against each other and pushing each other to be better.”

Kick coverage will be a vital issue in Saturday’s upcoming matchup against Stanford, since Christian McCaffrey is perhaps the conference’s most dangerous return man. Most teams elect to avoid kicking to McCaffrey, and the Cougars are likely to try that as well.

“(I prefer to) try to avoid (good returners),” Leach said. “You try to hit the weak spot of whatever their return is. The weak spot could be right at him, depending on what your coverage is, but you’re trying to put him in an uncomfortable position and sometimes that’s kicking away from him, too.”

Fortunately for WSU, kick Erik Powell has been considerably better on kickoffs this season. Last year he generated a touchback on just 27.6 percent of his kickoffs. This year that number has ascended to 42.9 percent.

Powell played an outsized role in last year’s game against Stanford. He made five field goals to keep the Cougars in the game, and then missed the one that would have given them the win.

Last year he was one of the best kickers in the Pac-12. In 2016, he has yet to make a single field goal even though the Cougars are about to play their fifth game.

To be fair, it has not all been his fault. The blocking has been bad in front of Powell, and it is easy to see how oncoming rushers have distracted him, even when he has been able to get the ball off cleanly.

That said, the blocked kicks have been low kicks, and Leach acknowledged this week he is more likely to go for it on fourth down in the red zone because of the kicking game’s struggles.

Last year, one bad kick marred a game full of great ones. Maybe on Saturday Powell will have an opportunity to redeem his slow start in clutch fashion.

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