By John Raby
AP Sports Writer
Corey Smith knows that being a fraction off can make a difference kicking a football.
His struggles on punts and kickoffs were part of a lackluster year for West Virginia’s special teams in 2011.
The senior has won back the right to handle the duties again. Smith is trying to narrow his focus so he can be ready to contribute the right way to No. 11 West Virginia’s debut season in the Big 12.
“Every day you have to perform,” Smith said. “At this level, consistency is key.”
That stability was lacking no matter who was kicking the ball last season. The inaccuracy bug bit not only Smith, but freshman replacement Michael Molinari and placekicker Tyler Bitancurt.
After losing both full-time jobs and plodding through a few weeks of being “down in the dumps,” Smith was able to win the punting job back by the end of the regular season and he finished on solid ground with the coaching staff.
Coach Dana Holgorsen is confident Smith will shine this year. If not, the revolving door will open for the others again.
“Our philosophy is always going to be we’re going to hold people accountable for what they do, whether it’s a kicker, punter, quarterback, o-lineman or a defensive guy,” Holgorsen said. “Based on (preseason) performances, he’ll remain the punter as long as the performance is good. He’ll handle the kickoff duties as well. He really looks good from that standpoint.”
Smith said last season was both discouraging and a learning experience.
“It was definitely frustrating, and I’ll be the first to admit that,” he said. “I got through it fine. I learned a lot of resiliency about myself. And I learned that I’m able to push through certain things and get through it even when I sort of hit the lowest of the lows.”
Smith has certainly shown he has the leg. Nine of his 26 punts went 50 or more yards last season. Five of his kickoffs went for touchbacks.
Then there were the not-so-good variety, including a pair of 14-yard punts.
The first one came against LSU on national television, and it led to a short touchdown drive and set the tone in a lopsided loss to the Tigers.
The following week, Smith shanked his only punt of the game in the rain, giving Bowling Green the ball at midfield. It cost him his punting job, although he got it back six games later. He also mishit some kickoffs against Bowling Green and by the end of the game was alternating with Bitancurt.
“That was probably the absolute lowest point,” Smith said.
But Molinari had his own troubles against Louisville and Pittsburgh. Smith replaced him in the latter game and responded with an average of nearly 53 yards on four punts.
West Virginia came from 13 points down in the second half against Pittsburgh to win.
Smith, who averaged 40 yards per punt for the season, said he Molinari and Bitancurt push each other to improve while at the same time trying to keep their names from making headlines for bad reasons. It’s all a matter of timing.
“A quarter of an inch is going to mean the difference in maybe a 50, 55 and even 60-yard punt, and a 25-yard shank,” Smith said. “It’s something that small, especially on kickoffs. If you don’t hit the exact sweet spot of the ball, which is about the size of a dime, you probably don’t have a chance at a touchback.”
Bitancurt went a respectable 16-of-22 on field goals, including a 28-yarder as time expired in the regular-season finale against South Florida. But two of his tries were blocked, one that Louisville’s Andrew Johnson returned 82 yards for a touchdown, a crucial shift in momentum in the Cardinals’ 38-35 win.
And other special teams areas suffered as well.
West Virginia averaged less than two punt returns per game, had one of the nation’s lowest net punting averages and gave up the most yards on kickoffs of any Bowl Subdivision team. Special teams penalties breathed new life into opponents’ drives, punts that were fumbled or inadvertently hit West Virginia players and recovered by opponents.
Smith might as well have been speaking for the team when he said the slate is wiped clean for 2012.
West Virginia opens play on Saturday at home against Marshall. Smith knows that he might only see the field less than 10 plays a game.
“But they better all be perfect,” he said. “It’s a mindset of being able to quickly get into that zone and block out everything else.”