Huntington’s Kessinger Wins Walker Award
HUNTINGTON — Often times, special teams is an afterthought for many at the high school level of football.
As Huntington High specialist Cason Kessinger proved, though, special teams can have as big – if not bigger – impact on a game’s outcome as offense or defense.
Whether offseason or during the 2016 campaign, Kessinger went to work each day hoping to earn respect for his trade while changing the game in West Virginia high school football.
“A lot of times people see kickers as just a person on the sideline,” Kessinger said. “In the offseason, I’m doing the exact same lifts as the rest of the team and we put in as much work with snaps, holding and placement.”
Kessinger didn’t only earn the respect of those around the state with his play. The senior’s impact in all three kicking capacities earned him the 2016 Walker Award, given to the state’s top special teams player by the West Virginia Sports Writers Association.
According to Huntington High coach Billy Seals, it is an award well-earned by one of the hardest-working Highlanders he’s coached.
“He won a couple games for us, to be honest with you,” Seals said. “We understand that there are three legs to the game, and he’s been a gem that we’ll miss tremendously.”
Kessinger finished the season 7-of-9 on field goal attempts with a long of 53 yards against Spring Valley that came on natural grass. His misses included having one attempt blocked and a kick that was wide right from 51 yards.
He also had a 75 percent rate of touchbacks on kickoffs while also pinning 14 of his 36 punt attempts inside the opponent’s 20-yard line.
“He was just the ultimate weapon,” Seals said. “He positively helped both the offense and defensive side for us. That’s what special teams is about.”
His worth was seen in two of the Highlanders’ most impressive wins of the 2016 season over George Washington and Spring Valley.
Against the Patriots, Kessinger averaged 42.1 yards on seven punts while also seeing three of his four kickoffs reach the end zone for touchbacks. That forced George Washington to start 10 of its 13 drives inside its own 20-yard line, meaning the Patriots were going to have to drive the length of the field.
“He won the GW game with field position,” Seals said. “They started 10 if 13 drives inside their 20 and that makes it hard for the opposing team when they have to go 80 yards every time they get the ball.”
He also had an offensive impact in the contest by forcing a pair of consecutive penalties on field goal attempts that led to the game-winning touchdown.
George Washington led by two as Kessinger lined up for his attempt and the Patriots had seen him nail a 53-yard field goal on natural grass in the previous week – a kick that pushed the Highlanders’ lead to two possessions in the third quarter of a 17-13 win over Spring Valley, which was the Timberwolves’ lone regular-season loss.
Knowing his prowess as a kicker, the Patriots jumped offsides on the 37-yard attempt, moving it five yards closer.
On the subsequent 32-yard attempt, the Patriots tried to jump the line of scrimmage and were called for hurdling, an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty which led to a first down and eventual touchdown run by Jadon Hayes to earn the 24-18 win.
Seals said what sets the senior apart is his work ethic in the offseason to improve on his craft.
“He works out as hard as anybody here at the school and he works really hard and flexibility, leg strength and core strength,” Seals said. “We saw that with his distance – especially on kickoffs this year.”
In West Virginia, kickoffs into the end zone are an automatic touchback, which Kessinger used to his advantage to keep the ball out of the hands of some of the state’s most dangerous athletes in the return game.
“Many teams we face have a guy back there who can take it to the house at any point,” Seals said. “Those guys get frustrated when they are used to getting it and they have to watch it go over their heads. The frustration grows as the game goes on and it gets into their head.”
Kessinger, who is uncommitted for the Class of 2017, is ranked by Ray Guy Kicking Academy as the Class of 2017’s No. 8 kicker in the United States.
He has preferred walk-on offers to both West Virginia and Marshall with interest from Louisville and North Carolina also, but amazingly, Kessinger still has no offers with less than two months before signing day.
“I feel like I’m good enough to play anywhere in the nation,” Kessinger said. “I feel like I’m good enough to earn an offer.”
With the work that Kessinger has put in to his skills, Seals said whomever pulls the trigger on an offer will end up happy they did so.
“He’s come up here two or three days throughout the year after school for three years to kick by himself out on the field and get better,” Seals said. “Those are the things it takes to be a Division I kid, which he is. Somebody is going to get a steal with this kid. Since I’ve been here, he’s been the best kicker in the state of West Virginia, without a doubt.”
The Walker Award is named for Fulton Walker, who was a return specialist with the Miami Dolphins (1981-85) and the Los Angeles Raiders (1985-86). Walker amassed 5,216 return yards (1,437 punt return yards; 3,779 kick return yards) with two touchdowns during his five seasons.
Kessinger will receive the 2016 Walker Award at the 71st annual Victory Awards Dinner, which will be hosted by the West Virginia Sports Writers Association at 4 p.m. on May 21 at Village Square Conference Center in Clarksburg, W.Va.