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Washington State hopes to build on big year for its special teams

Washington State’s Robert Taylor (2) gets pumped before kickoff during last October’s home game against UCLA. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

PULLMAN – A fast, instinctual, and now experienced defender, senior Robert Taylor is expected to emerge as one of the leaders of the Washington State defense at the safety position.

But they don’t call the man “Run It Back Rob” because of his skills at safety.

Taylor ended Washington State’s 13-year long drought of touchdowns via kickoff return last season, and he and WSU special teams coach Eric Mele don’t want Taylor to stop contributing in the third phase of the game.

In fact, Taylor has emerged this spring as a likely candidate to return punts, as well as kickoffs.

“Kick return, you’ve got a lot of space to work with, but punt return you make one guy miss and you’ve got a real good chance of going,” Taylor said. “I like them both equally, but right now I’d say I’m more comfortable with kick return.”

“Hopefully, somebody else can win one of the jobs away from him,” Mele said. “But he’ll be doing something for us, for sure. The kick return job is his until he doesn’t continue to win it every day, which he is.”

Running back Jamal Morrow has emerged as Taylor’s stiffest competition at the punt return spot, which is vacant after Kaleb Fossum, who ended another WSU special teams scoring drought last season, transferred to Nevada.

Fossum returned a punt 75 yards for a touchdown against California, the first time it was done by a Cougar since Michael Bumpus in 2005. Both players earned Pac-12 Special Teams Player of the Week honors for their respective scores.

WSU fans will see a familiar face at kicker next fall, and likely at punter as well.

It seems likely that senior Erik Powell will handle both duties, with wide receiver Kyle Sweet again rugby-punting when the coaches think it makes sense. Powell saw a little action as a punter his junior year, averaging 48.7 yards on seven punts. Four of those seven punts traveled 50 yards or more.

Powell has shown off a booming leg during spring practices, with one punt on Tuesday traveling from the 25-yard line all the way to the opposite end zone.

“He’s got a big leg, and the punts are the thing that’s been sticking out,” Mele said. “He’s kicking balls 60-plus yards, which has been exciting to see.”

As a field-goal kicker, Powell’s career has been marked by inconsistent consistency. As a sophomore starter in 2015 he connected on 20 of 26 attempts but struggled mightily at the start of his junior season, missing the first five kicks he attempted.

He then rebounded to connect on nine of his final 10 attempts and set a school record with 63 extra points in 65 attempts.

The Cougars will also be breaking in a new long snapper since longtime stalwart Lucas Gravelle decided to accept a scholarship to play his fifth and final season at TCU after graduating from WSU in May. Gravelle started the last two years for WSU, but his apparent successor, Kyle Celli, has done good work this spring and is regularly seen staying after practice to put in additional work.