MORGANTOWN. W.Va. — Joe DeForest takes his job as WVU special teams coach very seriously, and a primary facet of that job is convincing his players to take their roles just as seriously.
“Let’s be honest—no one on this team wants to play special teams. Nobody,” DeForest said. “You’ve got to convince them that it’s an integral part of the game, and motivate them.”
To that end, he has been scrutinizing players for potential spots on what he dubbed “the big four” — West Virginia’s punt, punt-return, kickoff and kick-return units.
“With two-deep at each one, that’s 88 spots,” DeForest said. “What you have to do is evaluate guys during the special teams period, as well as on defense. We see how they move around and evaluate if they can play in space.”
But back to the convincing part.
It’s something at which DeForest succeeded during 11 years at Oklahoma State, when he coached two Lou Groza Award contenders (Dan Bailey won it in 2010 and Quinn Sharp was a finalist in 2011) and a Ray Guy Award-winning punter (Matt Fodge in 2008). He twice coached the Big 12’s special teams player of the year (Sharp in 2011 and Dez Bryant three years previous), and seven times one of his coverage or return units ranked among the nation’s top 10.
Sure, gunners occasionally slip down and punts take funny bounces around the goal line, but DeForest’s run of excellence at Oklahoma State can’t be explained by coincidence. The sample size is too broad.
“Let’s be honest—no one on this team wants to play special teams. Nobody. You’ve got to convince them that it’s an integral part of the game, and motivate them.” — Joe DeForest, WVU special teams coordinator
After one dreadful season as WVU’s defensive coordinator—a year that can be attributed to poor depth, myriad communication lapses and some overly ambitious installations that required simplification as the season dragged on—DeForest is back in his element.
The Mountaineers’ special teams weren’t anything special in 2012 under former assistant Steve Dunlap, ranking 28th in punt returns but only 92nd in kick returns and 110th in net punting.
Re-enter DeForest, who said he’s one of only 12 FBS college assistants focusing entirely on special teams. He’s taking the coordinator demotion in stride and aiming to make WVU’s special-teams units as effective as OSU’s were. Various statisticians contend that each yard of field position directly impacts a team’s odds of scoring. One NFL analysis revealed that a mere 4-yard advantage in average starting position could generate an additional 2.8 points per game, which would have come in handy for WVU against TCU and Oklahoma last season.)
So, yes, DeForest attaches great importance to the possession-change battle for even a few yards, much less the momentum-swinging charge of lengthy runbacks and blocked kicks. Throughout fall camp, he scoured the reserves in hopes of spotting capable, fresh bodies.
“My goal is to find a third-team safety and make him the best backside tight end on kickoff return in the country,” he said. “If we can motivate kids who aren’t starting offense or defense to find a role and relish in it and thrive in it, then we’ve accomplished what we want to get done.
“You would hope that after going through all that offseason conditioning work, they would seize their opportunity to get on the field.”
Reserve offensive tackle Michael Calicchio stands as a shining example of the commitment DeForest seeks. A 6-foot-9, 325-pound example to be precise.
The redshirt junior, a walk-on who left WVU for the Division II ranks before returning last year, has been deployed in the middle of the punt-protector shield. It’s a means for Calicchio to contribute, using his broad frame to stop defenders who bleed through the line.
“It’s important to him, because he’s not going to get a lot of reps on offensive line,” DeForest said. “So he takes pride in being a starter on punts.
“That’s what we’re looking for. You’re a third-team tackle. How can you contribute to this team? Be the best middle shield in the country.”
And if he can’t be the best, Calicchio might at least represent the biggest—a guy so enormous reporters wondered if punters could kick over him.
“Hopefully,” DeForest dead-panned, “he won’t get knocked back.”