It may be #MSUWeek here at TheB1GTime, but we're also finishing up our rankings of the position groups across the conference (side note, these are my personal rankings and don't reflect the overall opinion of the staff). Today we will take a swing at the one group can be elusive to rank… Special Teams.
Elusive because there is more to each of these groups than just raw numbers and the specialists also count on the help of the other 10 guys around them to get the numbers right. That said, there are some really good parts returning despite some of the bigger loses (Brett Maher, I'm looking right at you). So, let us crack into the Special Teams rankings, shall we?
1. Northwestern: Jeff Budzien takes over of the title that Brett Maher had last season as the best special teams player in the Big Ten. He is deadly accurate (19-20 FG's in 2012) but lacks the cannon for a leg with his lone miss last year being a 53 yard effort against Nebraska (one that didn't miss terribly for what its worth). He can be deadly accurate from about 45 yards and in. Then there's the return game that features Venric Mark. I don't think we need to let you know how fast and shifty this guy is – but he's a perfect person for the return game. Tony Jones averaged 23.9 yards a kick return last season. About the only thing that isn't awesome about this group is the punting game and that's because Brandon Williams wasn't in the 40's with his average – something he is capable of. You would be hard pressed to find a better all around ST unit in the Big Ten or the country if you ask me.
2. Michigan: Will Hagerup led the Big Ten in punting last season with an average of 45 yards per punt and kicker Brandon Gibbons hit on a decent 88.9 percent of his kicks last year (16-18). That's a hell of a combo if you ask me. Then you add in one of the better returners in the conference in Dennis Norfleet as just a freshman. On the whole this is one of the best groups returning in the conference.
3. Ohio State: Drew Basil hit 72% of his FG attempts last season, however he only attempted 11 FG's in all of 2012. The lack of numbers behind him aren't his fault, after all the offense in front of him was pretty damn explosive. He's a decent option in the kicking game and it appears he may end up taking on the punting duties, something I'm not too fond of outside of the rare occasion it actually works (Brett Maher anyone?). The returners are very big threats - Corey "Philly" Brown led the Big Ten in punt return average last season (12.3 and 2TD's) while Rod Smith was a big option in the kick return game, raking 5th (23.2 avg) – so on the whole it's hard to argue this group isn't very good.
4. Purdue: The kick return game was awesome last season with Akeem Hunt and Raheem Mosert combining to hep put the team on top of conference with a 22.9 average per return. Question is if Hunt, who's likely a main option in the running game, will give up his duties there. Cody Webster is a nice punter, improving his accuracy last season and averaging just over 42 yards per punt. The kicking game was a bit of a mess with using two different kickers (Paul Griggs and Sam McCartney) for close kicks and distance. Griggs looks to have won the main duties this spring, but there are still issues there. What really holds them back was a team that averaged a whole 3.2 yards per punt return – that has to change this season if they want to move up.
5.Michigan State: Mike Sadler is coming off a season where he ranked 2nd in the conference in punting, averaging 43.3 yards per punt. That is a heck of a starting point, but this team also loses it's kicker, Dan Conroy, who just so happened to lead the conference in made field goals last season (23) and was 6th in the conference in total points (TD's and Kicking combined). Losing that kind of production hurts. Luckily they know they have a big leg in Kevin Muma, who's been kicking off for this team the past few years. Question is does that translate into a good and accurate field goal kicker – they don't equate sometimes. Adding to the mix is a wide open return game that will be settled in camp.
6. Iowa: Mike Meyer was good last season as the kicker, hitting on 17 of 21 (81%) of his field goal attempts. He's a senior this season and his consistency will be needed for a team that will likely be in their share of nailbitters. That's the problem for all the rest of special teams. Punter Connor Kornbrath was o.k. as a frosh, averaging 37.9 yards a punt in 53 attempts last season but only allowed opponents to have 4.4 yards a punt return on 22 returns – not bad numbers overall but he can improve his distance a bit if you ask me. What this team did really well a season ago was return the ball. They were 2nd in kickoff returns as a team and return the leading kick returner (by average) in the league in senior Jordan Cotton. Unfortunately one of the better punt returners, Micah Hyde, is off to the NFL. So they will need to replace him, which can be a big hole as we've seen before in other teams.
7. Illinois: Well, this team amazingly did something well last season – leading the Big Ten in average per punt at 39.22 yards – and the lead man behind that, Justin DuVernois, returns to the fold. They also have a massive leg in kicker Taylor Zalewski, who nailed a 54 yarder last season, but struggled with accuracy from mid-distances. It appears that has been fixed in the offseason though. So, why only middle of the road for this group? Take a look at their return units last season, better yet, if you enjoy your eyesight DON'T DO IT. It needs some work and the recruiting class coming in should help, but this is a group that's good and could be better by the end if they can get their return game in order.
8. Nebraska: Losing your punter and kicker in the same year hurts, it hurts even worse when it's the same guy and he happened to be really freaking good at what he did. In steps Mauro Bondl, who will attempt to be both kicker and punter in 2013. He's got a massive leg and distance won't be an issue The saving grace for this unit, unlike the one just in front of it is it's return game and that's thanks to Ameer Abdullah. He averaged 21.2 yards per kick return and just over 13 yards per punt return last season – better than good numbers that can help teams win football games.
9. Wisconsin: The snapping is fine, the punting more than adequate… However, that kicking game – OUCH. It wasn't pretty last year to say the least, ranking last in FG percentage (.556) and next to last in PAT percentage (.945) in the Big Ten. it appears that Gary Andersen and crew aren't all that happy with what comes back in Kyle French and Jack Russell as they brought in a preferred walk-on earlier this month to compete with them. You don't do that (when you've got four on roster already) if you are happy with what's there and all will be back past this season as well. This group didn't have issues in the return games last season, ranking in the top half of the conference in both kick and punt returns and they return all of the talent that got them those numbers. Drew Meyer was a nice surprise last season, averaging 41.5 yards per punt as a freshman. If they can get the kicking game right this ranking will shoot up big time. The only thing keeping them from the bottom of these rankings are the punting and return game (that's how bad the kicking was last season).
10. Indiana: Mitch Ewald has been solid over his career, hitting on 44 of 55 (80%) of his field goals, but his long is just 49 yards. Erich Toth was good, but not spectacular in his sophomore season, but a 39.5 yard average isn't good enough when measured up to what's coming back in this conference this season. Tevin Coleman was a good kick returner last season (averaging over 23 yards a kick return w/ one of 96 for a TD), but Shane Wynn wasn't exactly setting the world on fire in terms of the punt return game. Overall this group is good but kind of blah if you ask me. They do the minimum well and aren't spectacular in any one aspect.
11. Minnesota: Sure they return both their punter and kicker from a season ago, but that doesn't mean things are all gravy in Minny. After all these were groups that finished 11th in FG percentage and 9th in punting last season. In fact things all around weren't good for this group as the highest they ranked in any special teams category as a group was 8th in both kick and punt returns. This group has room for improvement to say the least and it hurts them that they lose their top return man in Troy Stoudermire.
12. Penn State: Sam Ficken didn't exactly inspire confidence, in fact between the Badgers and Penn State it was a crap shoot as to who didn't trust their kicker more. It got to the point at times where O'Brien would chose to go for it when most who had faith in their kicker would let him go for it (i.e. from 40 yards out and such). This group also had trouble in the return game. I'm sure this unit will find a way to bring those numbers up, but until it's proven on the field this group is plain bad.