In football, special teams can be a forgotten edge when trying to figure out who the best teams are. It is rare that a team can go an entire season without having a game decided by either a punt or a field goal.
Team A may be leading by one score late in the game and have to punt to Team B from deep in their own territory. An outstanding punt will make things much more difficult for Team B to secure the win. A bad punt, however, puts Team B in field goal territory after just a first down or so.
But I don’t need to sit here and tell you that the punt is the most important play in football because you already know that.
The return game is key too. They call them hidden yards, but poor coverage or outstanding returning makes those yards blazingly apparent when it comes to the outcome of any game.
And yeah, place kickers are important too.
So who has the best overall special teams units in the Big Ten?
Big Ten East
1. Penn State
Penn State will need to get better at returning punts and kicks, because last year was not impressive. Where they are impressive, however, is with their kicking specialists. Senior kicker Tyler Davis was First-Team All-Big Ten last season, and sophomore punter Blake Gillikin was an Honorable Mention selection as a true freshman last year.
Senior receiver Janarion Grant has tied the NCAA record for career punt and kickoff return touchdowns with eight, and he missed eight games last year due to a broken ankle. He is expected to be full go to start the season and immediately gives Rutgers something that nobody else in the B1G has. Both kicking specialists return and they will be pushed by other talented options as well.
3. Ohio State
The Buckeyes were terrible at returning punts last year and have made it a point to improve. Redshirt freshman punter Drue Chrisman has a big leg, but has never kicked in college. Kicker Sean Nuernberger started in 2014, but will be tested by true freshman Blake Haubeil. Parris Campbell is one of the best kick returners in the conference.
Kicker Griffin Oakes is entering his fourth year as the Hoosiers kicker. He has had an up-and-down career, but was a First-Team All-B1G kicker in 2015. Punter Joseph Gedeon averaged 35.6 yards per punt last year, but the Hoosiers have brought in an Australian as well, so look out. The return game was nothing special.
Despite returning last year’s starting kicker, there has been an open competition in camp. Senior Adam Greene finished No. 11 in the Big Ten last year in field goal percentage (.643). Sophomore punter Wade Lees is Australian, so that’s a plus. The return game is still being sorted through, but there are a number of intriguing possibilities.
The Wolverine kicking and return game enters 2017 completely unproven, but recruiting has been fantastic. Jabrill Peppers and Jourdan Lewis were dynamic returners, but they are now gone. Redshirt freshman Quinn Nordin was the top kicker prospect in the nation in 2016. True freshman punter Brad Robbins was one of the top punting prospects in 2017. Plenty of questions here.
7. Michigan State
Senior punter Jake Hartbarger was a middle-of-the-pack guy a year ago, averaging 40.9 yards per punt. Kicker Michael Geiger is gone and somebody needs to replace him. Freshman Matt Coghlin and senior Brett Scanlon are the two main possibilities. The return game didn’t scare anybody last year.
Big Ten West
Junior kicker Emmit Carpenter was the Big Ten Kicker of the Year last year following a season where he made 22-of-24 field goals, including 10-of-10 from 40+. Senior punter Ryan Santoso was okay last year in his first as a starter. Running back Rodney Smith averaged 32.9 yards per kickoff return last year, but he had just eight attempts. Punt returns were non-existent last year.
Drew Brown has been the place kicker at Nebraska since 2014 and has been pretty darn good every single year. Sophomore punter Caleb Lightbourn was below average last year, but should make a jump now in his second season. The return game has potential, even though punt returner De’Mornay Pierson-El was held in check last year. Freshman Tyjon Lindsey could also be involved.
Kicker Rafael Gaglianone has tons of experience, having started in 2014 and 2015. He missed most of last season due to injury. He made 19-of-22 field goals as a freshman, but just 18-of-27 in 2015. Last year he was 7-of-8 before his injury. Punter Anthony Lotti finished No. 14 in the B1G in punting average last year (37.7). The return game did nothing last year.
Both kicking specialists return from last season. Sophomore kicker J.D. Dellinger hit 10-of-14 field goals last year, but he’ll be pushed by Baylor graduate transfer Spencer Evans. Punter Joe Schopper is heading into his third year as a starter for the Boilers. He’s been middle-of-the-road each of his previous two seasons. The return game needs a vast upgrade from last year.
Kicker Keith Duncan hit a 33-yarder with no time on the clock to beat Michigan as a true freshman last year, so he’s more mature than most sophomores. He hit 9-of-11 field goals last year. The punting situation is completely up in the air, but sophomore Colten Rastetter is the guy to beat simply because he’s been around. The return game is an unknown. Could running back Akrum Wadley fix that?
The Wildcats need to find a kicker and they’ll be choosing from guys who have never kicked in college before. That being said, this could easily be an upgrade from last season. Senior punter Hunter Niswander was dead last in punting in 2015, but moved up to No. 4 in the B1G last year. The return game is a question mark following the loss of Solomon Vault.
The Illinois kicking game is more up in the air than the balls that will eventually be kicked. The only good news here is that one of the punters is an Australian. The bad news is that he is still inconsistent. The place kicking is still being contested as well. There are no certainties here. The return game is in even worse shape, if that’s possible.