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Wright finds success returning kickoffs, sets program mark in opening setback

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — While there is plenty for West Virginia to correct following last Saturday’s 30-24 season-opening loss at Maryland, the Mountaineers’ kickoff return unit is not a topic on that list.

In fact, junior wide receiver Winston Wright Jr. made history in the setback to the Terrapins, becoming the first West Virginia player to surpass 200 yards on kickoff returns in a game.

Wright’s 217 yards on five kickoff returns was highlighted by a return of 98 yards in the opening quarter. He also had a 48-yard runback in the second half — a play that saw Wright continue to run after narrowly being ruled out of bounds with the Mountaineers trailing 23-21 in the fourth quarter.

“On the two returns, I just did what I was coached to do all week and what we practice,” Wright said. “The scheme worked. On the out of bounds, I really don’t know.”

The Mountaineers were in a 17-7 hole and in need of a spark when Wright provided one with the 98-yard runback. Wright slipped several tackles on the play before reaching his team’s 30-yard line, where he put a move on Maryland kicker Joseph Petrino and raced up the sideline until he was tracked down by Maryland defensive back Deonte Banks just before reaching the end zone.

“I was supposed to finish that,” Wright said.

WVU tailback Leddie Brown took care of the matter with a 2-yard run on the next play.

It was tied for the 11th longest return by a WVU player and marked the longest non-scoring kickoff return in program history.

Tavon Austin’s 199 yards on kickoff returns in October 2012 against Kansas State was the previous single-game high for a Mountaineer.

While Wright muffed a fumble on a punt return in the opening half for one of the Mountaineers’ four turnovers, he began the second half with a 29-yard kick return and added the 48-yard runback with his team trailing 23-21 in the fourth quarter.

Wright has proven himself a capable kickoff returner in the past and scored his first career touchdown on a 95-yard runback at Baylor in 2019.

Yet last season, Wright’s long return on 20 attempts was 37 yards — a number he surpassed twice against the Terrapins.

“Our kickoff return was really, really strong and I felt good about that,” WVU coach Neal Brown said.

Wright wasn’t as fortunate returning punts and his debut pulling double duty ended prematurely after a lost fumble and a loss of 1 yard on three returns.

“I was concerned about punt return and it showed up once today,” Brown said.

Fellow wideout Isaiah Esdale replaced Wright as the punt returner in the second half, although the Terrapins didn’t capitalize on Wright’s turnover after being forced to settle for a 51-yard field goal that Petrino missed.

“I just tried to make a move before I got the ball,” Wright said. “Little mistake turned into a turnover.

“When I got the turnover, I was on the sideline cheering the defense on and when they made the stop, that was big.”

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