Rating the Big Ten - The Special Teams
By Tony Gerdeman
Sometimes the difference between success and failure is measured by a single kick. A solid placekicker takes pressure off of an offense, and a solid punter takes pressure off of a defense. Together, they provide an invaluable unit that can't necessarily be gameplanned against.
Without either of those, every kick becomes a question mark. It can change a game, and it will certainly change the way a coach calls a game. Bill O'Brien chose to go for it on fourth down 34 times last season because he couldn't trust his kicking game. That was seven times more than the next team and a dozen more than the third team.
A solid special teams, including the return and coverage units, allows a football team to simply play the game, which is all a coach is looking for.
The Wildcats return a bucket of riches on special teams. Placekicker Jeff Budzien was the Co-Kicker of the Year last year in the Big Ten with Nebraska's Brett Maher. He finished 19-20 on field goals and 50-50 on extra points. He will be a weapon of comfort for Pat Fitzgerald this season. Punter Brandon Williams returns for his fourth season as Northwestern's starting punter. He averaged 39.9 yards per punt last season. The return game should be good as well, as tailback Venric Mark is back again to wreak havoc on punt coverage units. Last year he averaged 18.7 yards per punt return with two TDs. He only averaged 19.8 yards per kickoff return, however.
2. Ohio State
Though the Buckeyes didn't use him much last year when it came to field goals, Drew Basil returns for his third season as Ohio State's #1 placekicker. He is 24-30 on field goals the last two seasons, and 92-94 on extra points. The Buckeyes landed punter Cameron Johnston in June. He is a former Australian Rules Football player with a very strong leg. He has trained exclusively for American football, but is still unproven. In the return game, the Buckeyes return three players who have either returned a kick or a punt for a touchdown in their careers. Philly Brown returned two punts for touchdowns last season. The kickoff return needs to improve, but there are plenty of athletes to choose from.
The Hoosiers return both kicking specialists from last season. Placekicker Mitch Ewald is a three-time Honorable Mention All-Big Ten selection. He was 15-20 on field goals last season, and 5-7 from 40-49 yards. Erich Toth took over the punting duties halfway through last season as a freshman, and wasn't terrific. He will need to improve his 39.5-yard punt average, and he should. Running back Tevin Coleman averaged 23.6 yards per kickoff return, including a 96-yard touchdown. Nick Stoner was the punt returner last season, and he returns, but he averaged just 5.8 yards per return. With better talent on the roster this year, there should be more options here.
Senior placekicker Brendan Gibbons was an Honorable Mention All-Big Ten selection a year ago. He finished 16-18 on field goals, with both misses coming from 40-49 yards out. Matt Wile will be the punter, and he takes over for the temporarily-departed Will Hagerup. Wile averaged 35.9 yards on his 12 punts last season. He will obviously need to improve that number. The return game also needs to improve. Jeremy Gallon averaged just 5.5 yards per punt return last year. Dennis Norfleet returns, and he started impressively last year returning kickoffs. However, he was less impressive each successive week, averaging 23.6 yards per kick return for the season. There is room for improvement.
The Badgers return two placekickers from last year, though they only went 10-18 on field goals. Kyle French was 10-16, and is 13-21 in his career. He will either improve, or the Badgers will move on. French missed field goals against Ohio State and Penn State last year, both were overtime losses. Punter Drew Meyer was an Honorable Mention All-Big Ten selection as a freshman. He averaged 41.5 yards per kick. Wisconsin has some exciting kick and punt returners in Kenzel Doe, Jared Abbrederis and Melvin Gordon. Doe returned a punt for a touchdown last year, and Abbrederis did it in 2011. Gordon and Doe will return kickoffs, and both have the ability to hit a home run.
What's the old saying, "When you've got three kickers, you ain't got one." The Boilermakers had two placekickers last season, and a third kicker who handled kickoffs. They are all back this year, and they each struggled with placements during the spring. Considering the fact that Darrell Hazell will likely try to shorten games and stay as close on the scoreboard as possible, shaky kickers who are looking over their shoulders is not a productive asset. Punter Cody Webster returns for his fourth year as a starter. He is solid, but has to improve on his three blocked punts from last year. Raheem Mostert and Akeem Hunt are fine at kick returner, but they need to find a punt returner.
7. Michigan State
The Spartans will be breaking in a new placekicker this season, and if all goes well, it will be true freshman Michael Geiger. Geiger was the top prep kicker a year ago, even kicking a 55-yard game-winning field goal in the Ohio North-South Classic Div. IV-VI all-star game. The Spartans were involved in six games decided by three points or less last season, and three more decided by four points. Kicking will again be huge in East Lansing. Punter Mike Sadler returns, and he was a First-Team All-Big Ten selection last year after averaging 43.3 yards per punt. The return game was disappointing last season and needs to improve this year to help what could be a struggling offense.
Iowa returns both kicking specialists from last season. Placekicker Mike Meyer had a very solid year, hitting 17-21 field goal attempts and all 25 of his extra points. He was also an Honorable Mention All-Big Ten selection. Sophomore Connor Kornbrath is back to punt, but he needs to improve on his 37.9-yard average from last season, which he should. Receiver Jordan Cotton averaged a very solid 28.2 yards per kickoff return, including a 92-yard touchdown. The punt return game will need some help, however, and the job is wide open. There shouldn't be any shortage of candidates, but the question is how productive those candidates can be.
The Illini return sophomore placekicker Taylor Zalewski, who shared the job last year. He was 4-7 on field goals with a long of 54 yards. He has a decent leg, but accuracy is obviously something of a concern. Justin DuVernois returns to punt. He averaged 41.9 yards per punt last year, but because of a terrible offense, only got 19 of his 73 punts inside the 20-yard line. There is no return game to speak of from last season, and considering the amount of kickoff returns this team is going to have, Tim Beckman really needs to do something in this area in order to help the Illini's field position. Illinois returned 16 punts last year for a total of 25 yards.
10. Penn State
The Penn State special teams cost the Nittany Lions at least one win last season, and without significant improvement, will cost them more in 2013. Kicker Sam Ficken made just 4 of his first 11 field goal attempts last year before making his last 10. He'll need to be much better, and he's still looking for his first field goal over 40 yards. Punter Alex Butterworth averaged just 37.4 yards per punt last season, and he too will need to get much better. The lack of length is one thing, but the hang time isn't allowing the coverage units to get down fast enough to cover punts. The return game was yet another disappointing aspect of the 2012 special teams. The longest punt or kickoff return was just 46 yards.
The Cornhuskers lose just one specialist from last season in Brett Maher, unfortunately he was both the punter and the kicker. The new placekicker will either be sophomore Mauro Bondi, who redshirted last season, or Pat Smith, a senior transfer from Western Illinois, where he was 18-23 on field goals in his career. Bondi could also get a look at punter, as will redshirt freshman Sam Foltz. Foltz punted five times in the spring game, so hey, that's something. The return game was a source of constant anxiety last season. Nebraska fumbled five punt returns, and their best returner (Ameer Abdallah) may now be too busy (and valuable) as the #1 tailback to continue as a returner.
There are a bunch of unknowns when it comes to the Minnesota special teams. There will likely be a battle at placekicker between senior Chris Hawthorne, who has done little, and true freshman Ryan Santoso (6-5 26), who was a High School All-American. Christian Eldred returns to punt following a season where he averaged just 38.1 yards per kick a year ago. The Gophers also lose their top punt and kickoff returners, so they'll need to find some consistency there. Once they do, then hopefully they can turn that consistency into explosion and get some big plays from an area where they need it. On a team full of question marks, this is just one more in Jerry Kill's third season.
Rating the Big Ten Quarterbacks
Rating the Big Ten Running Backs
Rating the Big Ten Receivers and Tight Ends
Rating the Big Ten Offensive Lines
Rating the Big Ten Defensive Lines
Rating the Big Ten Linebackers
Rating the Big Ten Defensive Backs
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