MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Saturday was a rollercoaster day for Josh Lambert and West Virginia’s specialists. There was a punt nearly returned for a touchdown, a punt actually returned for a touchdown and a missed field goal before Lambert finally stutter-stepped into a 47-yard game-winner as time expired.
So, this seemed like a proper time to get to know the Mountaineers’ enigmatic specialist corps — Lambert, punter Nick O’Toole, holder Michael Molinari and long-snapper John DePalma. Today’s daily story centers on Lambert, but it begins to tell the story of a team that lifts together … and lives together.
Lambert, O’Toole, DePalma and reserve kicker “Little Mike” Molina got an apartment together this year, and we started talking about that and, well, everything. Once they start talking, laughs are sure to follow.
A few carrots to dangle in front of the readers’ noses:
• Lambert is a heck of a cook, says everyone. He’s the house cook and doesn’t like to keep leftovers around. He wants to open a restaurant one day.
• These specialists lift like monsters. They spent the offseason beefing up their bench-press numbers, and they can all push somewhere between 300 and 400 pounds on the bench. And they squat on Sundays.
• The go-to game at The Loft is FIFA. Everybody is good at FIFA. Everybody except DePalma.
Without further adieu, let’s get to know the guys head coach Dana Holgorsen called “goof balls” after Molinari twisted his ankle during a chest bump last month. Guys who won’t skip a leg day but care just as much about their tattooed and beefy biceps. Guys who know the one true answer to YouTube meathead Dom Mazzetti’s loaded question: Do you even lift?
A SPECIAL BIUNCH
So, is this indeed a bunch of “goof balls”?
DePALMA: "We definitely are goof balls, that's for sure. The leader of the goof balls would probably be Molinari. But when it comes down to it, when the pressure is on we're all serious. We get our work done."
MOLINARI: "We like to have fun. Let's keep it simple. We're very close-knit. Obviously, with all of us coming back this year we have that experience together. We had a good season last year, so we just tried to build on that this year and come back more improved and support each other, more than anything. We're close, which is good."
DeFOREST: "It's fun. They work hard. They know what they have to do. They're an integral part of the team. Don't lose sight of the fact you've got to coach a guy how to hold the ball, how to kick it, how to punt it, how to snap it. They're position players too. They don't play as many plays, but the plays they are in are exposed. If it's a bad snap or bad hold or bad kick, they only have one shot at it and then they're out. They've got to be perfect."
MEET CHEF LAMBERT
What is Josh Lambert, a man of few words, like off the field?
MOLINARI: "Josh is a nice kid. There is a heart in there, let's put it that way. ... He's very set in his own ways, but in a good way."
O’TOOLE: "It depends. He's up and down. He has his good days and his bad days of communication. It's like a tough relationship with everybody. He definitely has his good and bad days of communication. There's times where he'll just go into his room and I won't know if he's sleeping or what. And there's other times he's playing FIFA for eight hours straight. Or he's cooking. It just depends with him, how he's feeling that day." [laughs at his drab painting of this relationship]
DePALMA: "He comes out of his shell. He's a great cook, actually. He's a really good cook. You wouldn't think it, but of all of us in the apartment he's the big cook. At least once a week, if not more, he'll bring home scallops and shrimp. A couple days ago his uncle or one of his uncle's friends sent him a bunch of crab meat from Alaska. He cooked it all up, and it was really good."
Didn’t know they had crabs up there.
O’TOOLE: "It's Alaska. Ever watch Deadliest Catch? Seriously, this guy. I can't work with you."
What’s the chef’s specialty?
DePALMA: "His steak is his specialty. It's really good."
O’TOOLE: "He made alligator one time. He had never cooked it before, but it was really good. He buys all this stuff, and he's never done anything with it but he just pieces together a masterpiece."
So, it’s DePalma’s birthday today [Tuesday] … what’s he cooking?
DePALMA: "I'm going to a crab shack, actually."
Oh. OK, where’d this culinary passion come from?
LAMBERT: “Well, I love to eat food that tastes great, and eating out gets expensive. So, I started cooking, and it turned out that I really enjoyed it. And an added bonus is that I think I'm pretty good at it. One day I would like to open my own restaurant.”
That’s pretty wild, but let’s back up. How’d you start kicking?
LAMBERT: "I stopped playing select soccer in 6th grade. We were in middle school, I was on the football field during PE, and I was kicking a soccer ball across the field. The PE teacher came up and suggested I try to kick a football. I'd never played football, so I didn't think much of it. A couple weeks went by and I got to thinking about it. If I'm not playing soccer anymore, I should probably try something. That's how I got into it. Went out when football season started, started kicking a football and as time went by, though middle school and high school, I realized I could do this in college."
Where does your laidback demeanor come from?
LAMBERT: "I don't know. None of my family is really ... they have more emotion than me. I'm more like my dad than anybody."
It seems to help in bounce-back situations. Seven times you’ve had a chance to redeem yourself after a miss in the same game, and you’ve hit six times.
LAMBERT: "It's really hard to explain. With our position you can't dwell on a miss or a mistake. If you take it with you to the next kick, it's going to affect you then. If you start piling up misses, at that point it's not good.
What was your recruiting road like?
LAMBERT: "I went to a [Chris] Sailer kicking camp. He called me one day and said, 'Hey, you're going to be getting a few phone calls from people. Have your phone ready.' One day I was sitting in class and Coach DeForest called. He told me, 'I'll let you know tonight, but it looks like we'll have a scholarship for you.' He called me later that day and said, 'Hey, we've got a scholarship.' Got off the phone with him, thought about it, didn't even ask my mom or dad, thought about it for two minutes, called him back and said, 'Alright, I'm coming to West Virginia.' Then ended up telling my mom and dad, hey, by the way ..."
How did they react?
LAMBERT: "They were really excited. They know I'm not one of those kids who needs to be at home all the time. I'm fine being far away. I was talking to A&M at the time. They wanted me to walk on and then beat out the kid who was there, but everyone tells you that. I could have grayshirted at Louisiana Tech, and I had a bunch of D-II schools."
How’d yinz decide the shack up together this year?
LAMBERT: "We all talked about how we all get along, so we might as well live together. … We're like brothers. I'm with them the majority of the day other than while we're at class. At practice we spend all day together. At home we spend all day together."
What’s the vibe?
O’TOOLE: "Very mellow. It's not crazy. We're pretty far off. We're at The Lofts, which is kind of far from downtown. It's not bad."
DEPALMA: "It's pretty good. Little Mike brought in a big, 60-inch TV. He also brought Apple TV, got the Xbox hooked up with FIFA. That's the go-to."
What’s the single best aspect of the apartment?
O’TOOLE: "The TV, it's like 55 inches. Little Mike came in clutch with that."
And that’s where the FIFA happens, huh?
O’TOOLE: "Yeah, obviously. No, we play on a 13-inch TV. Come on, stupid question. Let's go."
And you’re good at FIFA?
O’TOOLE: "We're all good at FIFA — except John, John's not very good at FIFA.”
Today is John's birthday. Any plans to celebrate?
O’TOOLE: “Yeah, I mean, everybody's doing the whole social media thing, but that's so overrated."
DO YOU EVEN LIFT?
As specialists, do you have to prove yourselves in different ways?
MOLINARI: "I feel like we do. You have to earn respect, absolutely. I think we've earned some respect in some non-traditional ways. In the weight room, Josh can bench press upwards of 300 pounds. Me and O'Toole hold our own, as well. We kind of earn our respect that way, and with our production on the field, obviously. Guys know we're an important aspect of this team, and they respect that."
Wow, so Lambert’s got arms?
MOLINARI: "Lambert is swole, as we like to say. Our work ethic in the weight room, you don't see that often out of kickers and punters, I guess. [laughs] We have fun with it. It's fun. A lot of guys respect that."
So, somebody told me you can bench 300 pounds …
LAMBERT: "Uh, I can bench 400 pounds."
Oh! You'll have to tell Molinari ...
LAMBERT: "Oh, really? He was probably talking about how I can bench 150-pound dumbbells in each hand. But with the bar I can put about 400 up."
Well, that’s not NOT impressive.
DePALMA: "Four hundred? That's all he's got, but yeah.”
O’TOOLE: "Last week he had a pretty weak day. We all finished at the same weight with 120s [with each arm]. So ... just saying."
You go pretty ham in the weight room, then?
O’TOOLE: "Yeah, we're huge, obviously."
The word “swole” has been thrown around today.
O’TOOLE "We're the swolest of the swole." [leans toward mic] "Swolest of the swole."
Is it important you show your strength a little?
O’TOOLE: "I think it helps everybody appre...not appreciate us more but understand that we're doing everything they're doing. We're doing the same reps and more weight sometimes than they are. That just helps everybody understand that we're pulling our weight — literally. Literally. Wink."
DePALMA: “The weight room is where we can show our true colors, how hard we actually work. We can't show it on the field as much because it's a one-play-and-out deal. It's a way to bond with other players. We're usually intermingled between all the groups — I'll lift with linebackers and we'll be joking around then, too.”
LAMBERT: "They see us. We're out there before they are for practice. The time we actually spend with the team on the field is 25-30 minutes at the beginning when we're doing special teams, and then they see us leave. In that sense, yeah, it doesn't look good, but we go up to the grass field or the indoor field and spend a lot of time and do work. We don't go up there and mess around. When we're done, we come back and stretch. We all work really hard in the weight room. Everyone gets to see that, and they for the most part know we're not a bunch of goof balls. After practice, after we kick we don't go play ping-pong inside and take our pads off like some kickers do."
But you don’t skip leg day, do you?
O’TOOLE: "No. We squat on Sundays. Tuesday, Thursday it's little, not heavy legs because we want to save our legs."
Is it weird for specialists to be so into lifting?
O’TOOLE: "I've done that my whole life. At JUCO I was very into lifting and getting stronger and bigger and swole. Swoller. We want to be the biggest guys on the team, and we put up that weight. I'm just saying, we put up a lot of weight."
What are your feelings on Dom Mazzetti?
O’TOOLE: "Dom Mazzetti? He's classic!" [laughs]
Don't know the last time Dom Mazzetti was brought up in an interview here ...
O’TOOLE: "Yeah, probably never."
Ever had a game with that many momentum swings, especially on special teams?
LAMBERT: "It was definitely crazy. We had stuff go our way and stuff that didn't go our way. You just have to stay positive and expect things to go your way, and they will. … There was definitely a lot of adversity throughout the game. Good teams are able to overcome adversity. Between this year and last year you could tell a difference. Last year we had trouble finishing games. When it came down to it this year, we were able to finish, even though it was up and down."
O’TOOLE: "It was unreal. Definitely not a strong day in punting. Just missing the first one and me not having a good game, then Josh saving us for all the specialists at the end. It definitely helped us out, but it was up and down."
Lambert had just missed a field goal on the previous drive; how does he bounce back to nail a 47-yarder?
LAMBERT: "I'm not someone that gets real high or low. I try to stay pretty even-keeled throughout the game. If you do miss, which every kicker does — nobody is perfect — you have to be able to put it out and go on to the next one."
DeFOREST: "He’s a flat-liner, not a lot of emotion, which is great. If you miss a kick at that position, you're going to have to wait about another half hour before you get another chance."
O’TOOLE: “He has confidence, and I wouldn't say that nothing bothers him, but he can shake it off very easily. That's a big part of what we do. You're only as good as your next kick, and his next kick was a game winner. What have you done with your Saturday?"
DePALMA: “He doesn't let the pressure get to him. He never makes any situation bigger than it actually is. It's just another kick for him. People were talking trash to him — why weren't you excited? Well, he was just mad because he should have had it already put away. As he kept saying, most times in life you don't get two tries. He was just upset he had to take the second try to make it."
Was that a false start stutter-step we saw?
O’TOOLE: "I didn't even see the stutter. I was watching the snap and everything else, and I didn't see the stutter. After I saw the film, I was like hooo-lyyyy poo. He could have gotten called, but they also could have gotten called on the block, too, because they jumped and fell all over us. People these days, I know."
LAMBERT: "I watched the video, and I'm supposed to move at the same time that Mike picks his finger up off the ground to catch the ball. I moved when John started his snap motion. Everybody was saying that I false-started. I didn't false start. I moved when John moved, but I was still too early. If I wouldn't have stutter-stepped, I would have been there before the ball got there.”
So your eye is looking for a cue, which is Molinari lifting his finger?
“I mean, that's what it's supposed to be. My focus was a little skewed. I had a lot to think about. The one before that was blocked … so I was taking an approach more like I had to get the ball up. I can't have it blocked. Which is why I anticipated it more. As soon as John started, I went, and that was too early. Our up times are usually about 1.2, 1.25, 1.3 seconds. That one was 1.08. So, I was a little fast."
Were you following the two-minute drive and aware of where you’d be placed relative to a hash or the middle of the field?
"Honestly, I was staying in the kicking net the entire time. Once we got past the 50-yard line, I started looking over to see where the game clock was. ... Every kick is straight, whether you're on the left hash, right hash, middle. Everything is straight. That doesn't affect me.Honestly, I'd rather be on a hash than in the middle. If you kind of think about it, being in the middle you have more opportunity to miss left or right. Most of the time if I miss from a hash it's because I didn't finish my leg swing."
There was some serious shushing and mean-mugging going on after the kick … thoughts?
LAMBERT: “Everyone has their own opinions on people, but [fans] were saying all kinds of bad stuff throughout the whole game. Other than TCU last year, that's probably the worst fan base, at least that little section that was talking to us. That's probably the worst I've encountered so far."
O’TOOLE: "I think he needs to work on [the celebration]. You can't pull the Karl Joseph shushing. Mike was jumping around him, trying to ... I mean, he had just kicked the game-winning field goal and we won. And it's Josh, so he's not going to show any emotion. He needs to work on it a bit."
Can you cosign that the fans were giving a bit of a hard time?
O’TOOLE: "The fans were giving us a hard time the entire game. All the specialists were getting it. I think [the winning kick] really shut them up."
Do you have a punt celly?
O’TOOLE: "I will when I get one inside the 5, but you guys have to wait for that because I have to get it inside the 5 first. Just be looking for it."
Looked like you had a shot to tackle Will Likely ...
O’TOOLE: "Yeah, I ..."
*Theoretically* had a shot.
O’TOOLE: "You're a negative Nancy. I don't want to talk to you."
What'd you see there?
O’TOOLE: "I saw a five-star recruit running at me in the open field. It was tough. Freshman football came back to me: break down and get in front of the guy. He did try and juke me like 18 times in the last 10 yards. I didn't jump or anything. I just waited from him to get closer. I tried to get him, but he just mushed me right in my face."
What's going through your head when he's coming at you?
O’TOOLE: "I don't think I can say that here. You're the last line of defense. You've got to do something. You slow him down or try to get in front of him. I tried. It could have been a lot worse. I could have looked totally unathletic. I wish I would've got him."
They give you a hard time watching film?
O’TOOLE: "You could say that."
Still, had to feel good to see a specialist win it, right?
O’TOOLE: "Yeah, it's definitely a great feeling, and it's great to see him on cloud nine. Well, not cloud nine — cloud Josh."
Stephen J. Nesbitt:
and Twitter @stephenjnesbitt.