Rating the 2018 Big Ten Special Teams — West Division

J.D. Spielman Huskersdotcom

Show me a national championship team and I’ll likely show you one of the nation’s best special teams.

Coaches call it “hidden yardage,” and good luck finding that yardage without a legitimate focus on the kicking game.

When it comes to the special teams rankings every year, determining the best coverage teams are nearly impossible because of the turnover in personnel. So, in general, these rankings are based on the players who snap, catch, kick, and return.

And sadly for a few of these teams, they are replacing a handful of those guys.

1. Wisconsin Badgers

Both kicking specialists return for the Badgers this year. Senior kicker Rafael Gaglianone was 59-for-59 on PATs last year and 16-of-18 on field goals. He was a Second-Team All-B1G selection last season. Junior punter Anthony Lotti was 12th in the Big Ten with a 40.0-yard average per punt last year. The Badgers would like that number to rise a bit. A new punt returner will need to be found. Junior receiver A.J. Taylor split the kick return duties last year and averaged 23.5 yards on his 14 returns. Wisconsin was middle-of-the-pack in kick and punt coverage last season.

2. Northwestern Wildcats

Sophomore receiver Riley Lees was the primary returner for Northwestern last season. He did not do much to warrant concern from the rest of the Big Ten, averaging 9.8 yards per punt return and 20.4 yards per kickoff return. Sophomore kicker Charlie Kuhbander was 43-of-44 on PATs and 13-16 on field goals as a true freshman last season. His long field goal was just 40 yards, however. The punting will likely be handled by Western Kentucky grad transfer Jake Collins, who was a 3-year starter for the Hilltoppers. He averaged over 40 yards per punt each year.

3. Nebraska Cornhuskers

Nebraska may have the most explosive kick returner in the conference in sophomore wide receiver J.D. Spielman. He averaged 24.8 yards per kick return last season, including a 99-yard touchdown. The Huskers need a punt returner, which is one of the reasons Spielman worked there this spring as well. As one of Nebraska’s top offensive weapons, however, using him too much on special teams could be detrimental overall. Junior punter Caleb Lightbourn has been the Huskers’ punter the last three years, and averaged 42.1 yards per punt last year. The kicker could be freshman Barret Pickering, who was one of the top kickers in the 2018 recruiting class.

4. Iowa Hawkeyes

Senior kicker Miguel Recinos made all 44 of his extra point attempts last season and 11-of-13 field goals. He also put half of his kickoffs into the end zone. Junior punter Colton Rastetter was inconsistent last season, averaging just 37.8 yards per punt, which was dead last in the Big Ten. Sophomore running back Ivory Kelly-Martin averaged 21.3 yards per return last year on 19 attempts. His long return was just 35 yards. A punt returner needs to be found, but whoever it is will likely be an upgrade on Matt VandeBerg’s 5.4-yard average last year. The Hawkeyes were near the top in both kick and punt coverage in the B1G last year.

5. Minnesota Golden Gophers

Senior place-kicker Emmit Carpenter was a First-Team All-B1G selection in 2016, so he has talent. Last year, however, he was 14-of-20 on field goal attempts, and just 5-of-9 on attempts from 40 yards or more. Junior Jacob Herbers is the likely punter this year, replacing productive Ryan Santoso. Herbers has been the holder for the Gophers and also a backup first baseman. The return game is an up-and-down situation. Running back Rodney Smith averaged 25.9 yards per kickoff return, but he split time and may be too valuable this year to use here much. Minnesota averaged four yards per punt return last season, which was 118th in the country.

6. Illinois Fighting Illini

Sophomore punter Blake Hayes averaged 42.0 yards per punt, but put just 22 of his 77 punts inside the 20-yard line. He also only forced 16 fair catches. Despite consistently outkicking his coverage, the Illini still only allowed 4.8 yards per punt return. Senior kicker Chase McLaughlin was 3-of-8 on field goal attempts over 40 yards and 12-of-17 on field goals overall. Sophomore cornerback Nate Hobbs led the team with 22.3 yards per kick return on 10 attempts, and senior receiver Mike Dudek averaged 10.8 yards per punt return on his six attempts. The Illini return game needs to do more this season in order to help the Illinois offense.

7. Purdue Boilermakers

Sophomore receiver Jackson Anthrop is back to return punts this season after shining a year ago by averaging 1.8 yards per attempt with a long of seven whole yards. Senior running back D.J. Knox averaged just 18.0 yards per kickoff return in 2017. Clearly, the return game is in need of an upgrade. Senior punter Joe Schopper averaged 40.5 yards per punt last season, putting 30 of his 73 punts inside the 20-yard line. The place-kicking was split by junior J.D. Dellinger and senior Spencer Evans. Dellinger went 9-of-13 on field goals and Evans went 8-of-11. The Boilers are also breaking in a new special teams coach for the third year in a row.

2018 Big Ten Ratings

Quarterbacks — East | West

Running Backs — East | West

Receivers and Tight Ends — East | West

Offensive Line — East | West

Defensive Line — East West

Linebackers — East | West

Defensive Backs — East |West

Special TeamsEast |

[J.D. Spielman photo courtesy]