Ranking the Big Ten Special Teams
By Tony Gerdeman
It's infinitely harder to win a game if you don't have quality special teams. If you don't think that special teams matter, then take a look around the country at the number of head coaches who personally oversee it.
This year, special teams take on an even larger role because the kickoff has been moved up to the 35-yard line in hopes of encouraging touchbacks. Those touchbacks will now start on the 25-yard line instead of the 20-yard line.
While it may lead to more touchbacks, it will also lead to more strategic kicking against opponents that don't pose a return threat. Teams will try to pin opponents, thereby negating the entire purpose of the rule change.
Leave it to college football coaches to manipulate the rules to their own advantage
Returnees: K Brett Maher (43-44 XP, 19-23 FGs), P Brett Maher (44.5 avg), KR Ameer Abdullah (28-763-1), PR Ameer Abdullah (15-107)
It's fairly amazing to think that Nebraska ranks number one on this list on the basis of just two players. There are blockers, snappers and holders, but Brett Maher and Ameer Abdullah are the two stars of the special units. Maher was the kicker and the punter of the year in the Big Ten last season, and will look to repeat his feat in 2012. Abdullah was one of the most dangerous kickoff returns in the nation in 2011, and there's no reason to think that he won't be again this season.
2. Ohio State
Returnees: K Drew Basil (36-37 XP, 16-19 FGs), P Ben Buchanan (41.3 avg), KR Jordan Hall (26-683), PR Jordan Hall (12-70)
The Buckeyes are one of four teams in the conference that returns their kicker, punter and leading punt and kickoff returner. With Urban Meyer in charge, there will now be a renewed focus on the special teams, as they are one of his pet projects. The return game may look a little different without Jordan Hall early in the season. Look for cornerback Bradley Roby to be utilized more. Also expect to see an assortment of punt types from Ohio State this year, including the rugby punt.
3. Michigan State
Returnees: K Dan Conroy (48-48 XP, 17-23 FGs), P Mike Sadler (41.1 avg), KR Nick Hill (38-999)
Since Mark Dantonio came to Michigan State, a Spartan punter or kicker has earned All-Conference recognition six times. Dan Conroy returns yet again to give Michigan State an experienced point-getter at kicker. As a sophomore in 2010, he was named First-Team All-Big Ten. Mike Sadler was named to the All-Big Ten Freshman Team last season, and more is expected of him this year. Nick Hill is one of the most productive returners in the nation, but somebody will have to replace Keshawn Martin on punt returns.
Returnees: P Cody Webster (42.9 avg), KR Raheem Mostert (25-837-1)
Punter Cody Webster returns this season, as does his booming leg. He finished second in the conference in punting average last season. The placekicking will be done by freshman Paul Griggs. The staff likes him, but a freshman is still a freshman. The return game could be very good. Raheem Mostert led the Big Ten with a 33.5-yard kickoff return last year. The battle for punt returner is still ongoing, but cornerback Ricardo Allen's name has been mentioned.
Returnees: K Kyle French (26-27 XP, 3-5 FGs), KR Jared Abbrederis (28-689), PR Jared Abbrederis (20-315-1)
While the Badgers lost both their starting kicker and punter from last season, they do return kicker Kyle French, who played the first four games of last season. However, he currently sits behind walk-on Jack Russell for the top spot. The punting will likely be handled by redshirt freshman Drew Meyer, who is lacking consistency. The return game should be fine with Jared Abbrederis returning, though there is talk that his role on special teams could be reduced. A player like receiver Kenzel Doe could possibly emerge.
Returnees: K Jeff Budzein (50-50 XP, 6-10 FGs), P Brandon Williams (40.8 avg), KR Venric Mark (40-915), PR Venric Mark (8-127)
If kicker Jeff Budzein can prove himself worthy of head coach Pat Fitzgerald's trust, the Wildcats could have one of the best special team units in the conference. Last season, Budzein only attempted ten field goals because Fitzgerald just wasn't sure about him. That's also why Northwestern led the conference with 28 fourth down attempts last season. Brandon Williams was one of the top punters in the conference as a sophomore last season. Venric Mark is a threat to score any time he touches the ball if he's given a seam.
Returnees: K Brendan Gibbons (54-55 XP, 13-17 FGs), P Matt Wile (41.6 avg), P Will Hagerup (36.0 avg), PR Jeremy Gallon (19-192)
Kicker Brendan Gibbons was surprisingly effective last season after being a very big question mark in 2010. The Wolverines enter the season with much more confidence in their kicker this year than they did last year. The punting game is still up for grabs. The hope is that somebody wins it outright, rather than loses it. Michigan was very average in the return game last season and they need to improve that this year. Jeremy Gallon returns, but hasn't shown himself to be a big-play returner.
Returnees: K Jordan Wettstein (9-10 XPs, 6-6 FGs), K Chris Hawthorne (14-15 XPs, 6-9 FGs), P Dan Orseske (37.0 avg), KR Marcus Jones (13-370-1), PR Brandon Green (6-24)
The Gophers return just about every specialist from last season, including the very dangerous Troy Stoudermire, who missed most of 2011. Minnesota returned two kickoffs for touchdowns last season as proof of their effectiveness. The punt return game, however, is much less explosive. Brandon Green led the team with just six returns. Walk-on Jordan Wettstein took the kicking job from Chris Hawthorne last season, and is still fighting to keep it. The Gophers will need more from punter Dan Orseske than they got last season.
Returnees: K Mike Meyer (44-44 XP, 14-20 FGs), PR Micah Hyde (13-106)
Iowa returns kicker Mike Meyer, who had a very solid season last year, but was only 5-9 on kicks over 39 yards. The punting will be handled either by converted quarterback John Wienke or true freshman Connor Kornbrath, with Kornbrath in the apparent lead. Cornerback Micah Hyde is back to return punts, and there is a slew of Hawkeyes competing for the kickoff return job. Head coach Kirk Ferentz said he's willing to let anybody compete for the job, but don't expect to see any running backs allowed to do so.
Returnees: K Mitch Ewald (30-30 XP, 13-16 FGs), KR Shane Wynn (48-1015-1)
Placekicker Mitch Ewald is one of the more solid specialists in the conference and should be a busier man this season with a more experienced offense. The Hoosiers will need a punter, and it looks like that will be junior Mitchell Voss, who has never punted in a game. Shane Wynn is an explosive returner, but needs more help than he's been given. There are a number of players competing to return punts, which was far from a strength last season.
Returnees: P Justin DuVernois (38.3 avg), KR Darius Millines (5-105)
It was not a great year for the Illinois special teams in 2011. They finished last in the nation in kickoff returns, and third-from-last in punt returns. New head coach Tim Beckman brought in Tim Salem from Central Florida to handle the special teams. Last season, UCF was third in the nation in kick returns with a 26.9 average. But there are more concerns than just returns, as the Illini may be going with true freshman Ryan Frain at kicker, and they are still searching for consistency in the punting game.
12. Penn State
Returnees: KR Adrian Amos (8-163)
The bad news for Penn State is that they lost one of the Big Ten's best kickers and punters when Anthony Fera transferred out. The good news is that his likely replacements have seen game action and they're not entirely green. Sophomore placekicker Sam Ficken was 1-2 on field goal attempts last year. He's not Fera, but he's not a rookie either. The punting job will likely be won by Alex Butterworth, who is a junior with 20 career punts to his credit. The return game is anybody's guess, but watch for speedy Alex Kenney on kickoffs.
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