In case you hadn’t noticed, it is game week and I’m running just a smidge behind on my Big Ten Championship Game prediction.
So, in order to hurry things along, we’ll do both divisions in one preview from here on out.
Following the special teams, we’ll go to schedules, and then head coaches, and then hopefully by Wednesday we’ll be able to tally everything up and let you know if you should get your hotels booked for Indianapolis.
When it comes to the specialists in the Big Ten, a lot of the best have returned from last year, as have returners like Rondale Moore and Donovan Peoples-Jones.
Special teams are responsible for the hidden yards in every football game. It may be overlooked by fans, but it’s only overlooked by coaches who don’t know any better.
Just as an FYI, the long snappers go unmentioned here because I feel like talking about snapping is a lot like talking about a no hitter. I don’t want to jinx anybody while they’re doing just fine without me.
(The number in parentheses is the number of recruiting stars among the kickers, punters, and long snappers.)
1. Nebraska Cornhuskers (3)
Junior receiver JD Spielman is one of the most dangerous returners in the Big Ten. Even though he only averaged 21.1 yards per kick return last year, his 77-yard punt return touchdown is proof of his abilities. Big plays are a rarity for the Huskers return game, however. Senior punter Isaac Armstrong is back. He averaged 43.6 yards per punt after splitting time last year. He had a long of 73 yards, but will have to hold off Michigan State transfer William Przystup. Barret Pickering won the kicking job last year as a true freshman, hitting 14-of-18 field goals and 40-of-41 PATs. He was 2-of-5 from 40 yards or more.
2. Iowa Hawkeyes (8)
Iowa’s depth chart lists an OR next to their placekickers, which is always a tremendous sign. Junior Caleb Shudak played in one game last year and junior Keith Duncan hasn’t played since 2016. He was 9-11 on field goals that season and 38-39 on PATs. They will be starting a new punter, even though last year’s punter is back. Why are they starting a new punter, you ask? Because he’s Australian. His name is Michael Sleep-Dalton and he transferred from Arizona State. Junior receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette averaged 29.5 yards per kick return last year. A punt returner needs to be found.
3. Northwestern Wildcats (6)
Junior kicker Charlie Kuhbander is back for his third year as a starter, but had his ups and downs last year. He was 5-of-9 on field goals and 28-of-28 on extra points as a sophomore. There isn’t a punter on the roster who has punted in college before, but that’s probably no big deal, right? Both prominent returners are back. Junior receiver Kyric McGowan led the team with 24.1 yards per kick return on 13 attempts. Junior receiver Riley Lees was ineffective in his 20 punt returns, with a long of just 16 yards.
4. Minnesota Golden Gophers (12)
Nobody won the job at placekicker in camp for the Gophers, which means maybe we’ll see two or three kickers on Thursday against South Dakota State. Senior punter Jacob Herbers averaged 41.2 yards per punt last season, which was good for middle of the pack in the Big Ten. Sophomore receiver Demetrius Douglas averaged 24.8 yards per kick return with a long of 87 yards. He also averaged 16.1 yards per punt return, including a 69-yard touchdown.
5. Illinois Fighting Illini (8)
Illinois will rely on redshirt freshman Caleb Griffin to take over the placekicking duties, but he’ll still have competition from junior James McCourt. Junior punter Blake Hayes returns. He was a third-team all-conference punter last year, finishing second in the Big Ten with a 43.6-yard average. Freshman running back Kyron Cumby has done some nice things in the return game during practice, but will the stage be too big for him when the kicks are real?
6. Purdue Boilermakers (7)
Sophomore receiver Rondale Moore is a dynamic offensive weapon, but was only average as the Boilermakers’ punt and kick returner last year. Still, do you want to kick to him? Moore averaged 20.1 yards per kick return and 6.8 yards per punt return. Junior DJ Dellinger is back to kick placements, but redshirted last year. He was the starter as a freshman and sophomore in 2016 and 2017, hitting 19-of-27 field goals. True freshman Blake Cormier is likely the punter. There are some talented athletes here who could help out Moore in the return game as well.
7. Wisconsin Badgers (8)
The Badgers need to find a new kicker and one of the two punters they used last year needs to step up. The good news is that anything is possible. Sophomore Collin Larsh has won the kicking job out of camp and will handle field goals. He has yet to attempt a kick in college. Senior Anthony Lotti is the punter. He averaged 38.6 yards per punt last year, with 14 of his 32 kicks landing inside the 20-yard line. The return specialists are the same as last year, with neither having done anything spectacular enough to merit their names being mentioned here.
1. Michigan Wolverines (8)
Everybody is back from last year’s special teams, though they will need to find a new kickoff returner until Ambry Thomas is good to go. He returned a touchdown 99 yards last season and averaged 21.7 yards per return. Junior receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones is a very dangerous punt returner who has scored via returns each of his first two seasons. Senior Will Hart was a first-team all-conference punter last year, but only put a third of his punts inside the 20 and a fifth into the end zone. There are two talented and experienced kickers to choose from here.
2. Ohio State Buckeyes (9)
Fourth-year junior Drue Chrisman is the most talented punter in the conference, routinely pinning opponents deep in their own territory. Of his 61 punts last year, nearly half (29) landed inside the 20-yard line. Junior kicker Blake Haubeil was 10-of-13 on field goals in his first year as the Buckeyes’ primary kicker. He made all 37 of his extra points. Ohio State has lacked explosion in the return game, but doesn’t lack athletic options. Junior running back Demario McCall averaged 19.5 yards on 10 kick returns last year. Expect a couple of players to get some cracks at both return spots.
3. Michigan State Spartans (14)
All-Big Ten kicker Matt Coghlin is back for his third season as the Spartans’ kicker. He was 18-of-22 on field goals last year and made all 25 of his PATs. As a freshman, he hit 15-of-19 field goals. Senior punter Jake Hartbarger was the punter from 2015-2017, but missed last season. He averaged 41.9 yards per punt over that span. Sophomores Tyler Hunt and Bryce Baringer took over for Hartberger last year. Junior running back Connor Heyward led the team with a 22.1 yard kick return average on 13 attempts. Senior receiver Brandon Sowards averaged 7.4 yards per punt return.
4. Penn State Nittany Lions (6)
Senior punter Blake Gillikin has been the guy for Penn State since he was a true freshman. He averaged 44.0 yards per punt last year, but had two blocked. Sophomore kicker Jake Pinegar went 16-of-24 last year as a true freshman, hitting 53 of his 55 extra points. Sophomore receiver KJ Hamler averaged 26.1 yards per kick return, which was good for third in the conference. A punt returner needs to emerge. Perhaps sophomore receiver Jahan Dotson might be the guy. There are plenty of other possibilities as well given how well James Franklin has recruited.
5. Rutgers Scarlet Knights (2)
Every major player from Rutgers’ special teams last year is back this year. Junior kicker Justin Davidovicz hit 9-of-11 field goals last year and all of his whopping 17 PATs. Sophomore punter Adam Korsak is an Australian, so there are no worries here. The Scarlet Knights have their returners back, but none of them were productive enough to not be replaced. They used their starting running backs at kick return, but maybe the risk is no longer worth the reward. Sophomore cornerback Avery Young averaged 6.8 yards per punt return last year, but again, he’s a starter, so why risk it for less than seven yards per return?
6. Indiana Hoosiers (5)
Indiana returns both kicking specialists from last season. Senior placekicker Logan Justus was 15-of-18 on field goals and 32-of-33 on PATs, earning second-team all-conference honors. Somebody else will likely be doing the kicking off. Junior punter Haydon Whitehead punted 51 times last year, averaging 40.0 yards per punt. This will be his third season as the Hoosiers’ punter. Two new returners will need to be found. Junior receivers Whop Philyor and Cole Gest could be two options to fill those roles.
7. Maryland Terrapins (3)
Junior running back Javon Leake was one of the Big Ten’s best kick returners last year, averaging 24.1 yards per attempt, and scoring once on a 97-yard return. A punt returner still needs to step up. The Terrapins also need a punter and it looks like they’ll be choosing from a group of true freshmen and redshirt freshmen. Sophomore kicker Joseph Petrino is back. He hit 12-of-14 field goals last season with a long of 40 yards. He made all but one of his 41 PATs. He is also the kickoff guy.