Cougars’ special teams still need some fine-tuning

PULLMAN — Satisfaction is not part of Eric Russell’s vocabulary, nor is it an acceptable state of mind for Washington State’s special-teams coordinator.

It’s not that Russell doesn’t see positives in his group’s performance. He does. Their kickoff coverage a year ago was “good,” he said, other than one touchdown allowed against Utah that Russell blames at least partially on himself.

He likes the adaptation of second-year freshman quarterback Austin Apodaca to the holder position, and that’s who senior kicker Andrew Furney feels most comfortable with at this point.

But with eight days remaining until WSU’s season opener at Auburn, Russell said there are still several moving parts on the Cougars’ various special-teams units, and there are some incumbent players he’d like to see improve before WSU takes the field for real.


It might say more about Furney’s reputation than it does about his performance this camp that Russell says the way he’s kicked is “not what you’d expect out of a senior.”

“He hasn’t had the camp that he had last year,” Russell said. “He’s stroked the ball well, the leg strength’s there, this and that. But the accuracy’s not really been what we expected out of him. … I don’t know if it’s anything to be alarmed (about) yet, but for the standards you have for Andrew Furney, we haven’t met those.”

Those standards have risen throughout the senior’s career. Furney has made 31 of his 41 career field-goal attempts, including 14 of 20 last season. He made the second-longest field goal in Pacific-12 Conference history (a 60-yarder against Eastern Washington) and made two crucial kicks — including the game-winner — in last season’s Apple Cup victory.

But this year’s camp hasn’t quite lived up to those expectations. Furney said he struggled a bit during WSU’s 10-day stay in Lewiston, Idaho, because he wasn’t used to kicking on such a thick, grass surface.

“That took me back to my high school days, which was kind of fun, but at the same time it was like, ‘Am I kicking bad? Is it the surface?’” Furney said. “Once we came back here and I started kicking the ball well, it was nice to understand that I’m still hitting the ball well.”

Russell would like to see him hit it even better.

“We need to get it fixed,” Russell said. “He’s got to be automatic from 45 (yards and) in.”

Apodaca, WSU’s backup quarterback, has assumed place-holding duties. Russell said he thinks Apodaca is “doing a good job,” though it’s up to both him and Furney to fine-tune the position’s nuances.

Mike Bowlin, who handled punt and kickoff duties last season after transferring from Saddleback Junior College, is back for his senior year. He finished 38th in the nation last season, kicking 58 punts for an average of 41.95 yards, though a spate of inconsistency prevented that number from being even higher.

“His stuff’s always been fine in practice for the most part,” Russell said. “We haven’t had any real big scrimmage games where the emphasis is on (special) teams to know, but we’ll find out on that first Saturday … down there in Auburn.”

Teondray Caldwell and Rickey Galvin continue to battle for the kickoff return job, though Galvin left Tuesday’s practice with an apparent lower back injury. Caldwell, who returned 67 kickoffs for an average of 25 yards last season as a freshman, is also competing with sophomore receiver Brett Bartolone and senior running back Leon Brooks for punt-return duties.

Brooks and Bartolone shared that job last season.

“Ball security, decision making and fielding everything — right now, that’s where Leon’s got the edge on everybody,” Russell said. “He’s going to catch it clean, he’s going to not have a lot of the mistakes back there. Rickey probably brings a little more big-play potential, but (he’s) developing that trust in his decision-making at times on which balls to field.”

Alex Den Bleyker, a junior, will be WSU’s long-snapper.

Keep an eye on

Russell praised the camp performance of freshman walk-on Erik Powell, a strong-legged kicker from Vancouver, Wash. Furney noted that Powell has been good enough to keep pressure on him.

Reason for optimism

Furney has proven both clutch and accurate throughout his career, Bowlin’s leg-strength is Pac-12 caliber and the Cougars vastly improved their kickoff coverage unit last season — their national kick return defense ranking shot from 99th in 2011 to 61st.

Cause for concern

Russell noted that most of WSU’s special-teams starters from last season are back, but it’s those “moving parts” that could dictate which direction this group goes in 2013.

More in Sports

Seahawks won’t abandon sickly run game, Carroll says

Seattle has the NFL’s 32nd-ranked rushing offense.

No. 17 Gonzaga beats Utah State 79-66

Killian Tilllie scores 20 points and King’s alum Corey Kispert adds 12 in the victory.

Archbishop Murphy’s Ray Pimentel, right, attempts a stiff arm on North Kitsap’s Kyle Green Friday night at Veterans Memorial Stadium in Snohomish on November 17, 2017. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)
Archbishop Murphy fends off North Kitsap in state matchup

Top-ranked Wildcats ride big plays, timely defense to beat Vikings 28-21 in football playoff. (Video)

Seahawks’ aging ‘Legion of Boom’ missing key parts

Richard Sherman returns to headquarters following season-ending surgery; Kam Chancellor likely out Monday.

Utah’s dynamic quarterback has UW’s attention

Sophomore Tyler Huntley will provide the Huskies with a big challenge with his ability to run and pass.

Virginia Tech routs Washington 103-79 in 2K Classic

Jaylen Nowell scores 21 points to lead the Huskies, which lost their second straight.

Vitelli’s 3rd-period goal lifts Silvertips past T-birds

The 16-year-old rookie breaks a 1-1 tie and Everett hangs on to beat rival Seattle 3-2.

King’s girls soccer to play for 1A state title

Katie Stella and Callie Wright scored for the Knights in the 2-0 win over Seattle Academy.

REFLECTIONS: A big night for milestones, streaks and goalies

The Game The Everett Silvertips started slowly. Very slowly. They had just… Continue reading

Most Read