There's no point in talking about WVU's 2009 special teams without mentioning the most important moment of WVU's 2008 special teams: The game-opening, 102-yard-kickoff-return-for-a-touchdown by Cincinnati that was the deciding factor in the 26-23 overtime loss, eventually costing WVU a share of the Big East title and a trip to another BCS bowl game.
That play was emblematic of WVU's atrocious kickoff return coverage last year. WVU was unfairly criticized for poor overall special teams play last year when it was actually the kickoff return team that did all the damage and ended the season ranked last in the NCAA.
They were horrible in every way.
They were slow, leaving truck-sized alleys for returners to saunter through and they refused to tackle. Coach Stewart said in the off-season, he—remember, he's the special-teams coach—sought advice from other teams about how to better cover on kickoffs.
His solution seems to be hang time. So he's been searching for that in a replacement for graduated kicker Pat McAfee, who kicked off, kicked field goals and punted.
The answer appears to have been found be in the foot of transfer Josh Lider.
Lider, a junior, left Div. II Western Washington University when it dropped football after last season and seems to have more of a big leg rather than an accurate one. He was only 10-of-15 on field goals in his last season in Washington and 33-of-37 on PATs (Who misses four PATs in a season?).
Speaking of the kickoff coverage team, Stewart said some freshman offensive players—such as promising running back Shawne Alston—will be on the squad, so as not to wear out the starting linebackers and safeties that normally populate the unit.
Field goals this year will be handled by redshirt freshman Tyler Bitancourt, a Washington Post All-Met selection during his high school career. He is known as an accurate kicker, but has never kicked under the pressure of Big East football.
Taking on the punting duties will be the team's hard-luck story, Scott Kozlowski. Fans will remember him from the 2006 loss at Louisville, when Kozlowski punted to the wrong side of the field and his kick was returned for a touchdown.
That didn't cost WVU the game—Steve Slaton fumbles did.
But Kozlowski got in Rich Rodriguez's doghouse—the former coach tried to run him off, Kozlowski now says—and has set foot on a football field only once since and then only because McAfee was hurt.
Kozlowski resisted the temptation to transfer and now the job is his. Before his benching, Kozlowski was among the national leaders in punting average. So there should be few worries here.
One rule change of note this year: If a punter runs from his spot after catching the snap to punt rugby-style, as WVU frequently does, roughing and running-into the kicker penalties no longer apply.
Lastly, returning kickoffs for WVU in '09 will be job of running back Noel Devine (above) and true freshman Tavon Austin while handling punt return duties will be cornerback Brandon Hogan.