It was a bit of a mixed bag, in terms of results, for the West Virginia special teams unit in 2021.
The Mountaineers were a top-20 team in the country last season in kickoff returns, averaging nearly 25 yards per kick return. They also ranked in the top third of the country in defending punt returns, yielding less than seven yards per return on punts.
However, WVU was among the worst teams in the country in returning punts.
“We feel like we just got to get better at returning punts,” head coach Neal Brown said on Saturday. “We lost two fumbles last year that, if you go back and look at both of those plays, they completely changed the momentum of the games.”
Improving special teams, as a whole, was undoubtedly an aspect of the game on the mind of the coaching staff entering the offseason and heading into the 2022 campaign.
“It’s been a point of emphasis. We got to be better at it,” Brown said. “We haven’t been good enough on that unit period. So, we’ve got to be better.”
Parker Grothaus, a redshirt senior, is battling for playing time as a kickoff specialist and placekicker. Brown described him as being really helpful to the team.
He is expected to challenge Casey Legg, who is on the Lou Groza Award preseason watch list, for the field goal kicking responsibilities. He is also, according to the preseason depth chart, in a battle with Cumberland, Maryland native Danny King for the starting role on kickoffs.
“(Grothaus) is a pickup that not a whole lot of people are talking about, but he could have as big an impact as any of them,” Brown said. “Just from a field position standpoint.”
Legg was 19-of-23 on field goal attempts last season, with only one of his misses coming from inside 40 yards. “Leggatron” also kicked off 13 times for the Mountaineers.
Grothaus averaged 60.6 yards per kickoff with 29 touchbacks with Florida State last season. He also pulled off the Seminoles’ first successful onside kick since 2009.
True freshman Oliver Straw, who hails from Melbourne, Australia, appeared to be holding a slight edge over redshirt sophomore Kolton McGhee for the starting punter job when the preseason depth chart was released.
However, McGhee has shown the coaching staff quality play through the first five practices of the fall.
“I’ll tell you, Kolten McGee has probably been as surprising as anybody in our camp, so far,” Brown said. “He hit the ball well. This is year four for him.”
McGhee has received some playing time with the Mountaineers previously. He kicked off five times last season, and punted occasionally in 2020, taking the job from Tyler Sumpter in some weeks.
Sumpter handled all but one punt for WVU in 2021.
In terms of return men, Sam James appears to be the returner on both kickoffs and punts. Backup running back Jaylen Anderson is also in the mix as a kick returner, as expected.
Starting SPEAR Davis Mallinger and backup wide receiver Preston Fox are among the players who, along with James, have been seen fielding punts in practice so far.
“I’ve spent a lot of time with them personally,” Brown said. “We’ve got more reps than we’ve ever had. And we feel good about four, maybe five, guys back there.”
James and Graeson Malashevich are the only players still on the roster who returned either a kick or punt last season for the Mountaineers. Malashevich had eight total returns, while James made just one punt return.