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 many of these teams, they are replacing a whole bunch of those guys.
1. Ohio State Buckeyes
Long-snapper Liam McCullough is back for his third season of domination. His snaps are soft, yet firm — like day-old pudding left out on the counter. Sean Nuernberger was 71-for-71 on PATs last year and 17-of-21 on FGs (16-17 <40). Blake Haubeil returns to handle kickoffs, which may become even more specialized this season. Punter Drue Chrisman was outstanding in his first season as a starter, averaging 44.2 yards per punt. Half of his punts landed inside the 20-yard line. The return game is a bit of a question, as Demario McCall earned both return spots in the spring. He is loaded with ability, but he’s still a bit of an unknown. Amazingly, the Buckeyes finished third in the B1G in KR coverage last year (17.4), and that’s with two TDs allowed.
2. Michigan Wolverines
Michigan returns everyone of note from last year’s kicking game. Punter Brad Robbins finished 11th in the B1G last season (40.4). Quinn Nordin missed three of his 38 PATs, but hit 19-of-24 field goals, including 6-of-8 over 40 yards. Punt returner Donovan Peoples-Jones is dynamic with the football, but was inconsistent as a true freshman last season, averaging just 8.0 yards per return. He did have a 79-yard touchdown return last season though. He should be more consistent this year. Cornerback Ambry Thomas averaged 19.8 yards per kickoff return, but they should be able to get more than that this season. Michigan led the B1G last season with just 15 yards per kickoff return allowed.
3. Michigan State Spartans
The Spartans weren’t that impressive in the return game last season, and that will need to change in 2018. They averaged just 3.9 yards per punt return in 21 attempts, which was 13th in the B1G last year. Kickoffs were better, but still remarkably average. Running back Connor Heyward averaged 21.8 yards per return on 20 attempts. He had a long return of 55 yards. Both kicking specialists return this season. Senior punter Jake Hartbarger has 180 career punts over his first three seasons. His 42.0 yards per punt last season were tied for seventh in the B1G. He was fourth as a freshman and sixth as a sophomore. Matt Coghlin was 38-of-38 on PATs last year as a true freshman and 15-of-19 on field goals. He was 4-of-7 on 40+ field goal attempts. The Spartans allowed a B1G-low 2.6 yards per punt return last year.
4. Penn State Nittany Lions
Penn State will miss Saquon Barkley returning kicks, but they’ll have some athletes that will still be able to concern people. Receiver DeAndre Thompkins averaged 13.3 yards per punt return last year, returning one for a touchdown. A new kicker will need to be found, and it will likely be true freshman Jake Pinegar or starting junior punter Blake Gillikin. Gillikin has a big leg and could be called on for longer kicks. Ideally, however, Pinegar will win the job and Gillikin can go back to simply being one of the best punters in the Big Ten. Last season he averaged 43.2 yards per punt and was named Second-Team All-Big Ten. PSU covered the second-most kickoffs in the Big Ten last season (53), but they were still 29 behind Ohio State’s 82.
5. Maryland Terrapins
Running back Ty Johnson averaged 24.3 yards per kickoff return last season, scoring once. He is an explosive and dangerous returner, but last season was his first long-term exposure as a returner. He has dabbled here and there, however, including some punt returning in 2016 and 2015. Finding a punt returner will be important, but D.J. Durkin has been recruiting athletes of late, so they should be able to find somebody. Junior punter Wade Lees returns, but he was pretty average last season (39.2 avg). A new kicker will need to be found, and whoever it is will need to do better than the 7-of-12 on field goals that the starter managed last year. The Terps only allowed 13 punt returns last season, but they gave up a B1G-worst 11.2 yards per return, with one of those returns reaching the end zone.
6. Rutgers Scarlet Knights
What you don’t what in a young program that is looking to make a move to bowl eligibility is to be breaking in all new kicking specialists, but that’s where Rutgers finds itself this season. They must replace their first-ever All-Big Ten performer in punter Ryan Anders. Fortunately, they have an Australian to do it. Adam Korsak has been on campus since the winter, so he has adjusted to the weather, the game, and the New Jersey traffic. Sophomore Justin Davidovicz is likely to be the kicker. He handled kickoffs last season, but no placements. The return game was pitiful last season for the Scarlet Knights. Leading kick returner Raheem Blackshear is back, but his 16.7 yard-per-return average doesn’t scream ‘job security.’ Kickoff coverage was good last year thanks largely to Davidovicz’s hang time and placement.
7. Indiana Hoosiers
Indiana career field goal leader Griffin Oakes is gone, which leaves this position in a bit of mystery. True freshman Charles Campbell has the most potential and is ultimately the future at the position for Indiana. Junior punter Haydon Whitehead is Australian, so you know he’s good. He wasn’t as good as most Australians, however, as he averaged just 40.7 yards per punt last year. The Hoosiers will need to find somebody to return kicks for them, and whoever does it should be able to improve on Devonte Willaims’ 18.7 yards per return. Don’t expect anybody to improve on J-Shun Harris’ 19 yards per punt return and two touchdowns, however. Not even Harris himself, who is back for one final season, should be expected to match those numbers. Indiana was dead last in kickoff returns allowed last season (24.9 avg).