By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON – Among the punters and placekickers coming into Marshall’s 2012 football preseason camp, redshirt sophomore Justin Haig was the known quantity … well, sort of.
Among four kickers competing for three jobs – kickoffs, field goals/PATs and punting – Haig was the only one with experience.
He was the Thundering Herd’s kickoff man last season, but with 2011 senior Tyler Warner going 12-of-15 on field goals, Haig had only two FG tries, hitting a 24-yarder in a big win at Louisville before a bad snap and worse rain at UCF doomed a 40-yard try.
Haig won the placement and kickoff jobs in a 2012 camp duel with redshirt freshman Trent Martin, and in Saturday’s Friends of Coal Bowl loss to West Virginia, did nothing to show that Coach Doc Holliday and his staff had picked the wrong guy.
While some would quibble that Haig didn’t thunder-foot his kickoffs through the Mountaineer Field end zone, he pretty much did was he was supposed to do on six of his seven kicks. He also was 2-for-2 on field goals (34 and 29 yards) and crisp on four extra points.
His performance was part of a good day for the Herd special teams, including an 51.2-yard average college debut by true freshman punter Tyler Williams, a blocked punt by C.J. Crawford, and holding WVU to only 6.3 yards (average) on punt returns and 18.4 on kick returns … no small feat with speedy star Tavon Austin among those standing in wait.
“He did a really nice job,” Holliday said Tuesday. “He went out there and kicked both field goals he tried, was perfect on extra points. He did a pretty nice job on kickoffs, too. That last deal, it wasn’t supposed to be onside. It was a squib, but he knows that and he’ll work at it.”
Before a botched squib-kick attempt near game’s end, Haig’s kicks reached the WVU 16, goal line, 1, 14, 25 and 5 … and Austin got his hands on the ball only once.
“I was pleased with my performance,” Haig said Monday at the Herd players’ interview session. “I can always do better, but I was satisfied with how I did. The special teams unit as a whole, we did really well, and we’re only going to get better from here on out.”
While there were plenty of question marks about the Herd kicking game before camp began last month, there were none Saturday in Morgantown. Williams, for example, came out of Week 1 ranked third in the nation in punting and the Herd is fourth in net punting (46.5-yard average).
Haig and Williams are working with a true freshman snapper, too, in Matt Cincotta.
“I liked all of my field goal and PAT attempts, how that went,” said Haig, of Delray Beach, Fla. “The get-offs were good, the holds (by backup quarterback Blake Frohnapfel), the snaps were good. I liked how I hit the ball.
“What I need to work on is my squib kick at the end of the game, and I’ll practice a couple of those this week.”
With kickoffs moved up 5 yards to the 35 in NCAA football this season, the touchback rule brings the ball out 5 yards, too, to the 25. What Holliday and defensive coordinator Chris Rippon – he works with the kickers – have emphasized is hang time and location, over the desire for distance.
“The main thing they tell me is kick placement,” said the 5-foot-8, 180-pound Haig. “Everyone worries about kick placement, more than depth of the kick. Honestly, the farther it goes the better, but there’s more emphasis on the direction of the kick.’
The Herd coach agreed, to a point.
“We’d like to have both, directional and distance,” Holliday said. “What we’d like to get is no returnable, but is you don’t have that, directional is key. He did a pretty good job kicking down there in the corner.
“We just can’t kick ‘em out of bounds. Justin did a nice job placing the ball. And with our kickoff coverage the way we play it, placement of the ball is so important.”
A reason why Holliday says that? In the Herd’s seven victories last season, Marshall had only one kick return more than 40 yards by an opponent (Derrick Harris of East Carolina, 44 yards). In the six losses, there were 10 kick returns of 40 or more yards.
Holliday said Haig “is a tough kid … doesn’t flinch.” Rippon said during the preseason that there also was something to be said for going with someone who had been on the field, facing the rush off the ends before, as Haig had – at least in two games.
Another August kicking decision by Holliday and Rippon seemed to pay dividends in the opener, too. They purposely limited the number of camp kicks all of the candidates took, trying to keep legs fresher for the long season.
Asked if the camp competition helped him once the “lights went on” for the season Saturday, Haig said his approach is more an inner-focus … as it is with most kickers.
“I always try to prepare myself during camp,” he said. “I don’t worry about anything else, just try to make myself better and prepare myself for game situations. I guess you can say that paid off.
“I really don’t look at it as nerve-wracking, I just go out and don’t think about it too much,” Haig said. “I just focus on putting the ball through the uprights, and in kicking off, how I’m supposed to kick off and follow the game plan. I don’t worry about too many other things.
“Last year I was more nervous when I was kicking off. This year, I’m more excited than anything. I pretty much got my jitters out last year and I’m just excited to play and help us win some games.”