MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – The importance of football’s third phase is not lost on Neal Brown, and his team’s performance on special teams last year left a sour taste in his mouth.

“If you look at our losses, we got our tail kicked in field position,” head coach Neal Brown said.

Simply put, it’s easier to score points on a shorter field. It’s also easier to play defense on a longer field.

“I think we missed 16 tackles on kickoff last year which is, I mean, that’s absurd,” Brown said. “That’s way too high. And our kickoff return last year, we really made a bunch of poor decisions at the returner. I think our average starting field position after kickoff return was the 21-yard line. To give you an example, I think Kansas State and maybe TCU (average around) the 28. That’s a seven-yard difference. That’s huge.”

WVU’s kickoff unit allowed the second-most kickoff return yards (814) in the Big 12 last season despite attempting the second-fewest kickoffs (68). With Casey Legg departing, either Danny King or Michael Hayes will likely handle kickoff duties.

Interestingly enough, the punt-coverage team carried an entirely different reputation. WVU averaged a net 41.3 yards per punt last season, which was the third-best in the conference.

Ray Guy Award Watch List punter Oliver Straw returns in 2023.

“I think our punter has the chance to be elite,” Brown said.

“We want to continue what we’ve been doing on punt. I thought we were really good last year on punt. We want to continue to build on that, trying to get to great. And then our biggest step that we’ve got to make is on kickoff coverage and on kickoff return. We’ve statistically got to make big steps right there.”

He also noted that as a whole, the team’s speed is up when compared to last year.

As for the return game, Brown applauded the efforts of Preston Fox from late last year. He also said that newcomers Ja’Shaun Poke and Beanie Bishop are taking return reps, and that they bring characteristics that are “schematically different.”

Still, WVU finished in the bottom-three in the conference in both the punt and kick return games.

“Our field-position differential has got to be better,” Brown said.