By Cam Huffman
Joe DeForest was every Mountaineer fan’s favorite target last year, and it made sense. As the man in charge of one of the worst defenses in college football — and the worst in West Virginia’s football history — the bull’s eye on his chest was large.
After head coach Dana Holgorsen made a switch at the end of the regular season last year — promoting Keith Patterson to defensive coordinator and moving DeForest to special teams coordinator — it was easy to assume that the highly-paid assistant would fly under the radar and his detractors would vanish.
It hasn’t quite turned out that way.
First, DeForest was named as one of the guilty parties in a Sports Illustrated story on the NCAA violations that allegedly occurred at Oklahoma State, while DeForest was an assistant with the Cowboys. But even more noticeable to fans has been the shaky play of many of WVU’s special teams units.
It hasn’t all been bad. Junior college transfer Nick O’Toole has been a huge weapon at punter for the Mountaineers, and, thanks to his leg and his mustache, has become a fan favorite. The sophomore ranks third in the Big 12, averaging 44.8 yards per punt, and WVU’s net punting average of 42.8 yards is second in the conference.
Josh Lambert has made six of his 10 field goal attempts and played a key role in the Mountaineers’ upset of No. 11 Oklahoma State last Saturday in Morgantown. The only kick he missed was blocked.
“He probably did so well because I didn’t yell at him,” said Holgorsen with a laugh. “I would have yelled at him a a year ago, but I promised Coach DeForest I wouldn’t talk to the kickers for any reason, and I haven’t.”
That’s where the positives end.
A year after Tavon Austin scared every opponent with his ability to take punts to the house, WVU is last in the Big 12 in punt return, averaging just four yards on 10 returns.
They’ve fumbled more than one, setting up opponents for scores, and last Saturday Jordan Thompson called for a fair catch and caught an OSU punt on the 3-yard line, breaking one of the most elementary rules of punt returning.
“(We tell them) to line up on the 10, and if they back up, they don’t catch it,” said Holgorsen. “That’s kind of the cardinal rule in punt return. I’ll be darned if he didn’t back up seven yards and catch it.”
“As soon as I caught the ball, I knew what I did was wrong,” said Thompson. “There was no question about it. I knew it was wrong, and as soon as I caught it I was mad at myself. I told Coach (Lonnie) Galloway that the reason I caught it was because I was trying to make a play in a key situation, but it backfired on me.
“In practice, we are working on pooch punts with just the kickers and us to make sure we do not go back when we are standing on the 10-yard line. It was one mistake that I know I will not make again. I am not worried about it, and neither is coach Galloway.”
Thompson, a sophomore wide receiver, who also made a crucial diving catch late in the upset victory, said he’s still learning to handle his new role.
“It has been a learning experience,” he said. “I never really had a main role as a punt returner, but it is just a process. I am getting more comfortable being back there to catch punts. Now, it is about getting more reps so I can become more comfortable during returns.”
Holgorsen said he plans on sticking with his two returners, Thompson and Ronald Carswell, mostly because switching them out could lead to larger disasters.
“You can’t just plug people into being punt returners,” he explained. “The two who we’ve been working, we will be continuing to work with them. If we can get some yards on that, we’re good.”
Holgorsen’s bigger concern comes on kick returns, where WVU’s 18.1-yard average ranks ninth in the 10-team Big 12.
“I think our kick returners are garbage,” said Holgorsen, candidly. “If guys catch it, they run and get drilled, that’s the front line people.
“But the scheme and all of that stuff is good. Kickoff return is 100 percent timing. We have yet to find guys who can catch it and run. We had open auditions on Sunday night. I would anticipate a couple of new people back there.”
Holgorsen said there are about six players working at that spot, trying to earn a position.
“I will be anxiously awaiting that,” he said. “It might take us until Thursday to figure it out.”
— E-mail: chuffman
@register-herald.com and follow on Twitter @CamHuffmanRH.