In 2009, West Virginia’s special teams were both a strength and a weakness of the team. The biggest problem was on kickoffs, which will need to be solved for the Mountaineers to win the Big East.
West Virginia’s punt coverage was one of the top units in the country, with a net average of 38 yards. However, West Virginia will have to replace punter Scott Kozlowski. Competing for the punting job will be senior Gregg Pugnetti and junior Corey Smith.
Pugnetti has not seen any action in his Mountaineer career, but has backed up Kozlowski and All-American Pat McAfee the past three seasons. Smith is a West Virginia native, and is eligible after transferring from Alabama and sitting out last year.
While neither has punted in a game, the competition should push each to the best of their ability.
At kicker, sophomore Tyler Bitancurt returns after having a strong freshman season where he was named first-team all-Big East.
Bitancurt went 13-15 on field goals, including five of six from beyond 40 yards. He also showed he can kick in pressure situations, kicking a game-winning 43-yard field goal as time expired against rival Pittsburgh.
He has sat out this spring after having surgery to remove bone chips in his ankle, but will be healthy when fall camp begins.
The downside to West Virginia’s special teams was the kickoff coverage.
The Mountaineers were 104th in the country in kickoff yardage defense, giving up 24 yards per return. To complicate matters, West Virginia could not find a kicker that could kick it past the 10-yard line on a consistent basis.
Bitancurt did not kickoff last year, as the coaches did not want to wear his leg out. The competition for the kickoff job will be between him and Smith. For the team to be successful, they need a kicker who can kickoff consistently.
On punt returns, it will be seniors Brandon Hogan and Jock Sanders for their third year returning. West Virginia was 44th in the country at just over 10 yards a punt return.
It has been a couple years since the Mountaineers have had a punt return for a touchdown. If they can improve their punt return average just slightly, it will give new quarterback Eugene Smith better field position throughout the game.
For kickoff returns, it will be combination of seniors Noel Devine and Jock Sanders, and sophomore Tavon Austin.
While all three have big play capability on offense, West Virginia finished just 61st in kickoff return yardage at almost 22 yards a return. If they can get better blocking, they should be able to break off some long returns. Austin had the only kickoff return for a touchdown last year.
For West Virginia to have a successful season in 2010, they need to be more consistent in all aspects of special teams. If the Mountaineers can straighten out the kickoff coverage, they should have a successful season.