by Greg Talkington
MORGANTOWN -- Despite having two talented punters the past three seasons in Todd James and Mark Fazzolari, West Virginia's punting game has been anything but productive.
Fazzolari struggled with reducing his steps before the kick while James kept could never get comfortable moving back and forth between punting and place kicking.
Heading into the 2003 season, James finds himself alone as the WVU punter. Fazzolari has graduated and transfer Brad Cooper appears to have solidified the place kicking slot.
James spent the entire summer doing nothing but punting. He believes the benefits will show during games this season.
"The leg swing is completely different between kicking and punting," James said. "I've really benefited from just punting this summer. Everything is better, from the flight of the ball, the downfield explosion and hang time.
"When you slow it down and watch it on tape, I look like a completely different punter."
His hang time has increased significantly. He had several punts stay up nearly 5 seconds and one that hit the 5.1-second mark during a recent practice session.
"Hang time is probably more important than distance," he said. "Coach (Rich) Rodriguez wants that and the ability to punt directionally.
"If you hit one that high and pin a guy on the sidelines, there's basically no place for them to go."
James would like to average 45-yards per punt this season, but says that number is not a true barometer of punting success.
"Out net punting, which includes the return, has been one of the worst in the league the past couple of seasons," James said. "That's the one thing we need to improve on the most.
"If we're only gaining 30-yards or so on a punt, that's not good. That's what I'd like to improve on the most."
Although admitting he'd rather have just punted during his career, the versatility he's gained could well be his ticket to the National Football League.
"Last season, I would have liked to punted and nothing else, but that wasn't an option because I was needed at place kicker," the 6-foot-3, 200-pound senior said. "But kickoffs, I've done that. Placements, I've done that. Being a holder, I can do that.
"No one in the NFL can do all of those things so I think that's definitely an advantage for me."
Sports writer Greg Talkington can be reached at 626-1444 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org