Special teams coach Eric Mele took some momentum-changing risks in his own life to get to WSU. He now has the Cougars' special teams units poised to make momentum-changing plays in every game

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As Washington State discovered in its last game against Idaho, big special teams plays can influence the outcome of a game.

Two big special teams plays – such as the blocked field goal that led to Marcellus Pippins’ touchdown return and the kickoff team’s forced fumble that Gerard Wicks ran back for a touchdown – in the same game are even rarer.

Especially for the Cougars’ football program, which until their huge special teams breakthrough against the Vandals on Sept. 17, had to look back to 1973 to find the last time they’d scored two special teams touchdowns in the same game.

But as special teams staple and WSU safety Colton Teglovic points out, stellar special teams play is all about “just trying to change the momentum.” So as the Cougars prepare to face Oregon at home in their Pac-12 opener this Saturday, it’s fitting that the man who has reversed WSU’s special teams fortunes is no stranger to making big, momentum-changing plays in his own life.

Now in his second year as the Cougs’ special teams coach, Eric Mele has rebuilt the unit long viewed as WSU’s Achilles heel, and turned it into a strength.

The Cougars currently rank third nationally in both kick and punt coverage, allowing an average of -1.5 yards per punt return and an average of 13.9 yards per kick return.

It’s a marked improvement from 2014, when the Cougars ranked 88th in kickoff coverage, 123rd in punt return defense, and gave up six touchdowns on special teams – all of which contributed to the firing of special teams coach Eric Russell midway through the season.

Russell’s exit opened the door for Mele, then the Cougars’ offensive quality control assistant, to become WSU’s special teams coach.

In doing so, Mele pulled off the biggest coup of his career. And that’s saying something because thrice now in his coaching career, Mele has stepped outside the box to create job opportunities for himself where there were none.

In 2007, five years removed from his own playing days at Division III William Paterson (N.J.) University, Mele, a New Jersey native, moved his family to North Carolina in search of a more affordable cost of living.

The problem was, all his coaching connections were in New Jersey, where he’d started out as a special teams assistant coach at his alma mater before joining the staff at Division I-AA Saint Peter’s (N.J.) College in 2006 – only to have Saint Peter’s eliminate its football program the following year.

So Mele and his wife, Melissa, moved to North Carolina, where Mele wandered into the office of Wingate University football coach Joe Reich to ask about a job.

“Eric had called and emailed me. I’d never met him. He said he was moving down to the area and wanted to get back into coaching. I emailed him back and said, ‘I don’t have anything.’ Then he showed up at my door,” Reich said.

Mele told Reich he had a teaching job in the local school district but wanted to continue his budding career as a college football coach. They worked out a deal and Mele started on Reich’s staff as a volunteer coach.

Reich, whose own background is in special teams, saw potential in the eager, young assistant, and he began ceding special teams responsibilities to Mele.

Two years into their volunteer coaching arrangement, Mele quit his job as a high school physical education teacher to take a full-time position at Wingate as part academic advisor, part football coach. Reich put him in charge of running backs and special teams.

Momentum shifting plays No. 2 and 3

Over the 27 years since WSU coach Mike Leach first installed his signature Air Raid offense, Leach has acquired a band of what he terms his “followers” – or as he explains it: “A group of guys nationally that have followed what I’ve run offensively in the past.”

Mele is one of those guys. He first started studying the Air Raid while coaching wide receivers at Saint Peter’s College. Then, after Leach was fired at Texas Tech in 2009, Mele found an address for Leach’s P.O. Box in Key West, Fla. on the Internet. Figuring that he had nothing to lose, Mele wrote a letter to Leach – “It was off the cuff, informal. Something like, ‘I know you’re out of coaching at this point, but when you get back, I would love to talk to you,” he says.

He mailed the letter and forgot all about it. A couple months later, while Mele was at Oregon for a coaching clinic, his phone rang and a Lubbock, Texas area code flashed on the screen.

Checking his voicemail in between sessions, Mele was excited to find a message from Leach punctuated by the Pirate’s typical brevity: “Eric. Mike Leach.”

“We played phone tag and started texting, and he said, ‘If you’re ever in Florida, let me know,’” Mele said.

Mele booked a trip to Key West two weeks later and toured the town with Leach as his tour guide. Leach then invited Mele back to Key West that summer to help with an Air Raid coaching clinic at a local high school.

Mele had just completed his fifth season at Wingate when Leach was hired at WSU in 2011. Seeing an opportunity, he called and texted Leach, but couldn’t get ahold of the Cougars’ new head coach. So on a whim during his spring break from Wingate, Mele booked a trip to Pullman with Reich’s blessing.

When he landed in Pullman, Mele texted Leach to announce that he was in town. …. Only to have Leach respond saying he was back in Key West.

“I didn’t really have the money to chase him around the country, but I said, ‘OK I’ll see you at Captain Tony’s (a Key West saloon) on Saturday,’” Mele recalls. “I think he realized then that he wasn’t gonna shake me. So he invited me back out.”

“He just kinda came out and refused to leave,” Leach says.

WSU’S SPECIAL TEAMS STATS OVER THE YEARS
Category/Year (Coach) 2013 (Eric Russell) 2014 (Russell/Eric Mele) 2015 (Mele) 2016 through 3 games (Mele)
Kickoff Return Defense (Rank/Yards per return ave/ TD allowed) 36th – 20.04 ypr – 1 TD 88th – 21.81 ypr – 3 TD 56th – 20.86 – 3 TD 3rd – 13.91 – 0 TD
Kickoff Returns (Rank/Yards per return/TD scored) 75th – 20.94 ypr – 0 TD 88th – 19.80 ypr – 0 TD 80th – 20.55 – 0 TD 107th – 17.92 – 0 TD
Punt Return Defense (Rank/Yards per return/ TD allowed) 51st – 7.00 ypr – 0 TD 123rd – 17.32 ypr – 3 TD 122nd – 14.43 – 2 TD 3rd – -1.5 -0 TD
Punt Returns (Rank/Yards per return/ TD scored) 49th – 8.95 ypr – 0 TD 72nd – 7.17 ypr – 0 TD 76th – 7.41 – 0 TD 67th – 7.77 – 0 TD
Net Punting (Rank/Average per punt/ Touchbacks) 93rd – 35.69 ypp – 2 120th – 32.86 ypp – 5 123rd – 32.9 ypp – 4 53rd – 38.5 ypp – 2
Blocked Opposing Kicks (Rank/Number) 24th – 3 70th – 1 23rd – 3 14th – 1
Blocked Opposing Punts (Rank/Number) 5th – 2 Unranked – 0 28th – 1 Unranked – 0
Blocked Kicks Allowed (Rank/Number) 22nd – 1 1st – 0 87th – 3 84th – 1
Blocked Punts Allowed (Rank/Number) 1st – 0 1st – 0 81st – 1 1st – 0
Field goals 16-of-20 (80%) 11-of-17 (64.7%) 20-of-26 (76.9%) 0-of-3 (0%)
Onside Kicks 0-of-0 2-of-5 0-of-0 0-of-1
PAT-Attempts 49-of-50 (98%) 47-of-48 (98%) 49-of-49 (100%) 18-of-18 (100%)

On his second trip to Pullman, Mele spent two days sitting in on meetings with Leach’s staff. At the very end, Leach finally offered him a job. The salary for an offensive quality control staffer did not match the number Mele and his wife had decided they would need to move across the country. But he accepted anyway.

“I thank her every day that she had the vision to see this as an opportunity,” Mele says. “We sold our house, sold one of our cars and moved with three kids.”

Progress

The Cougars’ special teams units have taken a different look under Mele, a sports psychology advocate who has rebranded his unit as WSU’s “special forces” – in homage to U.S. military special forces, whose values he wants his players to emulate.

The Cougars’ special teams units now sport camouflage hats and “special forces” T-shirts, and the players have embraced it all.

“There’s definitely an identity that we have our own unit,” Mele says.

Mele simplified the Cougars’ special teams schemes when he took over, hoping it would help his guys play faster. This offseason, he also added some bells and whistles, installing a rugby punt package featuring sophomore receiver Kyle Sweet.

Now, in Mele’s second season as special teams coach, things are coming together.

“It’s gotten to a point where these guys are playing hard and playing fast and doing things we started putting in last season,” Mele, 37, said. “There’s buy-in from the guys. You’re not pulling on a guy’s sleeve to help you with kick returns. The guys want to do it. There’s starters who are approaching me to get on these units.”

Kickoff defense is solid, and between Sweet’s harder-to-catch rugby punts, regular punter Zach Charme’s precision placement, and vastly improved punt coverage, the Cougars are second in the Pac-12 in punt return defense.

“I think coach Mele has got a good thing going. We’re building an identity on special teams and we’re more physical and we’re running hard,” Teglovic said. “Special teams is high intensity. … It’s competitive amongst each other. Everybody wants to make that tackle.”

The biggest chink in WSU’s Special Forces armor currently is Erik Powell’s 0-for-3 stat line on field goals. But Mele says he’s confident Powell will come through for WSU down the road.

“He was hitting 85 to 90 percent of field goals through camp. His first kick of the season, he comes out and just misses the kick. Week 2, we had a protection issue, and then Week 3, he comes out, he’s pressing a bit because he wants to make it. He kinda punches the ball and muscles it through and doesn’t swing as he usually does,” Mele said. “But he’s in a good mindset, he’s ready for the next one. And he’s a reason our kickoff coverage is doing so well. On kickoff, with the placement of his kicks, his hang time, and he’s getting more touchbacks, he’s done a great job there.”

Despite the Cougars’ field goal troubles, Leach says he’s pleased with Mele’s progress on special teams.

“He’s real smart, real knowledgable with a very aggressive work ethic,” Leach says. “I think he’s been doing a great job and getting better as we speak. He brings a lot of energy and we’ve been playing very aggressively on special teams.

“There’s a lot of moving parts with special teams, with a lot of people going in a lot of different directions. I think it takes a special kind of coach to do that.”