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Eric Russell discusses the state of Cougar special teams

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The Washington State special teams units have several question marks heading to the 2014 season. We had a chance to speak to Eric Russell about what he is looking for in special teams players and who might be the specialists for the coming season.

Eric Russell
Eric Russell
WSU Athletic Communications

Eric Russell oversees the special teams game at WSU meaning that he entirely takes over a practices at usually two different points while the team comes together to work on a special teams related drill. Russell's role is huge. Mike Leach is adamant that special teams players on the field are the best that the team can field rather than just throwing out backups and young players.

"If (a player) can't start on offense, and he can't start on defense, then there better be a good reason why he can start on special teams," said Leach after a recent practice.

This means that just like offensive and defensive coaches, Russell is out there looking for the best players he can find. When a special teams drill is conducted almost everybody with the exception of quarterbacks is usually participating under Russell's watchful eye. Playing on special teams is a tryout like every other positon on offense and defense.

"We've got to make this where guys are hungry starters to backups. We've got to fight to put the best team out there," says Russell about what he wants out there on the field.

Just like the offensive and defensive sides of the ball, special teams preparation involves getting players ready to face the different looks they will see throughout the season.

"You're training guys for your show teams as well. We're training guys to beat Oregon's kickoff team or Stanford's kickoff return team. We're trying to teach those fundamentals," said Russell on the type of things that he is gauging when evaluating players on special teams.

Developing special teams players can be a chore, especially for younger players new to the program. Russell says that a big part of that has to do with the lack of emphasis placed on special teams at the high school level.

"When guys get here, they really don't have a clue about special teams. A lot of them haven't played them in their high school days," stated Russell on the issue of getting young players on board with special teams.

Despite Leach and Russell's insistence on having the best players on the field for special teams, young players are made to realize that special teams will likely be their first introduction to the playing field.

"I think some of the older, backup guys kind of see the importance of it (special teams) and the opportunity to get on the field. That's why we stress it to youngsters when they get here that their first snap will probably be on a kickoff return," said Russell.

While some players try to earn roles on special teams in addition to their offensive or defensive positions, several players on the roster are special teams specialists. Let's take a look at some of those positions.

Both current place kickers, Erik Powell and Quentin Breshears have struggled with consistency throughout camp in Lewiston. However, Russell did not seem overly concerned citing a number of factors for the struggles.

"We haven't been as consistent down here. There's factors that go into that, trying to get new holder, snapper, surface. I think you can definitely see how the competition is affecting guys. We're going to be fine in that category," said Russell when asked if the lack of consistency between the kickers in fall camp was a concern.

As for punter, Russell is even more convinced that things are going in the right direction with a strong competition between Concepcion and Jordan Descalo.

"That's probably been the best competition as far as specials competition at camp so far. Wes (Concepcion) has improved greatly and he has earned a lot of confidence," said Russell.

A lot of people see absolute distance as the main thing that is needed on a punt, but Russell uses a number of criteria when evaluating the punter position.

"There's a lot of factors that go into it... things like operation time, hang time. It's not always about distance," said Russell on the ongoing evaluation of his punters.

At several points during the camp, punters have had cameras on them while they taking their punting step in order to improve on operation time.

More than anything, Russell just wants to see his punters work on improving individually and not get all caught up in the competition for the job.

"They need to quit worrying about who the guy is going to be and just do their job. It's not like they're punting against each other, they're punting against themselves," said Russell

Russell says that he is in the process of narrowing down players for his special teams units. However, when it comes to the specialists, Russell might wait to see what happens in the minutes before WSU is scheduled to kick off with Rutgers.

"It might end up being game time. Who can handle the atmosphere pregame?" said Russell when asked when final decisions on kickers would be made.

When it comes to return specialists, that situation remains fluid at the time. Russell says that he has many different players at his disposal. In the mix for kickoff returns are Kristoff Williams, Calvin Green, Rickey Galvin, Marcus Mason, Theron West, Jamal Morrow and Charleston White. The list of possible punt returners consists of Morrow, River Cracraft, and Marcellus Pippins.

Long snapping duties are likely to remain with Alex den Bleyker, although true freshman Joe Lang is currently competing for that position.

So let us know what your expectations are for WSU's special teams units this year. A lot more goes into it than just putting bodies out there. Who are the players you would like to see on special teams?