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Searching for returners
WVU struggled to get a lot of productivity in the return game a year ago, but with skilled players like Mario Alford, Jordan Thompson, Daryl Worley and Vernon Davis, among others, taking reps in camp, there should be plenty of options to find a reliable person to turn to.
Boomstache Nick O’Toole was great in his first season at West Virginia, and junior earned a spot on the Ray Guy Award watchlist this preseason and is expected to be one of the Big 12’s best punters this season. He’ll pair with Josh Lambert to give the Mountaineers a dependable duo on special teams.
It wasn’t long ago that the West Virginia special teams unit was considered to be among some of the least consistent groups in the country. Place kicker Tyler Bitancurt was hot and cold, a revolving door of punters struggled to assert themselves as a reliable starter and the coverage team was allowing big returns on what seemed to be almost every time out.
But with Joe DeForest, the former Oklahoma State special teams guru, leading the way with the unit, there have already been significant steps forward in a short amount of time.
“Our specialists, as a group, are the best I’ve ever had. The snapper, holder, punter, kicker – as a group, it’s as solid as anyone in the country,” DeForest said. “We’re leaps and bounds better than we have been, this is a great group.”
The two leading the way in that consistent group are place kicker Josh Lambert and punter Nick O’Toole.
With a group that didn’t lose any specialists from a year ago, Lambert – a sophomore – and the junior O’Toole bring a wealth of experience and talent even though they will still have plenty of eligibility left.
Lambert was as good as any Mountaineer kicker during his redshirt freshman season a year ago, making 17 of his 23 field goals and missed just two kicks inside of 50 yards. O’Toole emerged as one of the Big 12 Conference’s best punters during his sophomore campaign after transferring to West Virginia from junior college.
Averaging almost 45 yards per punt and quickly becoming a fan favorite, O’Toole provided consistency to a group that had been in desperate need of it in the past.
The two of them, along with holder Michael Molinari and long snapper John DePalma, formed a quick bond and built the type of chemistry that becomes absolutely necessary in a place like a special teams room. Quite often, the group is off to themselves, so keeping each other on the same page and making sure they work well together is one of the most important keys to success.
“When Nick came in last May, he was just kind of the last piece of the puzzle we needed. Everything really fell into place after that,” DePalma said. “(That relationship) is huge. I know Nick is going to have a good punt, I know that even if I have a little bit of a bad snap, Mike is going to have the hold and correct it, and Josh isn’t going to hesitate and drill the kick.”
They live together, they spend time together, they do yoga together. It’s not often that you’re not going to see the group of them apart. It’s brought them closer and it’s showing on the field.
Specialists are often thought of as the quirky guys on the team – the outcasts who don’t usually fit in as well with the rest of the team. But this group does, but it’s the bond they have with one another that allows them to stay as consistent as they have been since they all came together last season.
“We’re all close. We’ll play FIFA all night and we like to claim that we do it to build our camaraderie and communication skills with one another,” O’Toole joked. “We play with a bunch of different teams and we like getting big career modes going online so we can build up a powerhouse club.
“This is a really fun group of guys to be around.”
PROJECTED DEPTH CHART
1. Josh Lambert, Sophomore
2013: 17-of-23 FG, 35-of-36 PAT
1. Nick O’Toole, Junior
2013: 73 punts, 44.1 avg
1. Mario Alford, Senior
2013: 11 kickoff returns for 229 yards
2. Wendell Smallwood, Sophomore
2013: 30 kickoff returns for 541 yards
1. Mario Alford, Senior
2013: 1 punt return for -2 yards
2. Jordan Thompson, Junior
2013: 10 punt returns for 18 yards
What they're saying
“The snap is the most important part. I've had a couple of snappers in junior college and in high school that weren't too great and that's a big thing that has really helped me here and has elevated my game because I don't have to worry about the snap. When I was in high school, the first thing my coach always told me was to be ready for a bad snap and with John, I don't have to worry about that. That's great for me because I don't have to worry about it because I know where it's going to be and even if it's not a great snap, it'll be on my body somewhere.”
- Punter Nick O’Toole on long snapper John DePalma
”He was hurt last year. He had a groin and another muscle that was bothering him. He kicked about 75 percent. What I’ve tried to do this camp and throughout the fall – we’re going to pair down his reps. He loves to kick. He loves to warmup. Well, that tears his body down. The first two days of practice here have been great. I think he hit a 60-yarder (Aug. 1). His leg strength is the best it’s ever been. I think that comes with strength and conditioning and it comes with not kicking as much.”
- Special teams coordinator Joe DeForest on kicker Josh Lambert
Meet the newcomers
Stocked with veterans, WVU didn't bring in many new faces in its specialist corps, but it did add hometown standout Billy Kinney to the roster. Kinney isn't going to displace Josh Lambert or Nick O'Toole this year, but his lanky frame and whiplike action could give him a chance to compete further down the road in his career.