Big Ten Football: Power Ranking the Conference Specialists
Unlike other squads or position groups, it is impossible to give a year-to-year prognostication of collegiate special teams.
The players that usually make up a given special-team squad are underclassmen that are getting their feet wet. In other words, this year's punt-team gunner is next year's starting free safety.
On the other hand, the specialists are a measurable group.
Specifically, I am referring to the place kicker, punter, punt returner, kick returner and the player that handles kickoff duties.
Finally, unlike my estimates of other groups, I listed every kicker or punter that is currently on each team's roster—walk-on or scholarship—as well as all incoming scholarship kickers.
Meanwhile, I also listed every player on the roster with more than one collegiate return to his credit as being "in the mix."
The number of asterisks next to a players' name indicates how many years he has started. A "starter," for my purposes, had at least four starts in any one season.
A player only receives credit for the particular position at which he started. For example, if somebody handled kickoff duties for two years, but punting for one, he would have two asterisks next to kickoffs and one next to punting.
Players in italics are returning all-conference honorees.
A pound sign (#) indicates a player who hasn't started consecutive years or didn't start last year.
Finally, a lot can change in the next few months. This article is based on what the rosters of Big Ten teams look like, and what we know, right now.
Check out previous articles in this series, beginning with the most recent, Power Ranking the Conference Secondaries.
Penn State Nittany Lions
PK: Anthony Fera (Jr)*
P: Anthony Fera (Jr)**
KO: Anthony Fera (Jr)**
PR: Justin Brown (Sr)** OR Devon Smith (Sr)#*
Other Kickers/Punters on the Roster: Alex Butterworth (Jr), Sam Ficken (So), Matt Marcincin (RFr)
Other Experienced Return Men: Silas Redd (Jr), Malcolm Willis (Jr), Shawney Kersey (Jr), Adrian Amos (So)
The Lowdown: After a disastrous start to 2011 in the place kicking department, Anthony Fera took over, doing triple duty, and he didn't disappoint.
Individually, Fera nailed 82.4 percent of 17 attempts, had the second-highest punting average in the league with 41.95 YPP and drilled 22.22 percent of his kickoffs for touchbacks.
The punt return game is in good hands with Justin Brown, but the kickoff return situation is wide open with the graduation of Chaz Powell.
Illinois Fighting Illini
P: Justin Duvernois (So)* OR Ryan Lankford (Jr)*
KR: Darius Millines (Jr) OR Terry Hawthorne (Sr)
PR: Ryan Lankford (Jr)* OR Terry Hawthorne (Sr)
Other Kickers/Punters on the Roster: Brad Janitz (So), Patrick Dunn (So), Nick Immekus (So), J.J. Blau (RFr), Brennen VanMiegham (RFr), Garrett Stroup (RFr), Ryan Frain (TrFr)
Other Experienced Return Men: Jack Ramsey (Sr), Justin Green (Sr)
The Lowdown: Duvernois had a poor freshman showing, averaging a conference second-to-last 38.28 YPP. This led to his being benched in favor of wide receiver Lankford, who managed a nominally better 39.42 YPP.
Basically, all Illinois specialist positions are open.
PK: Mike Meyer (Jr)**
KO: Mike Meyer (Jr)**
PR: Micah Hyde (Sr)* OR OPEN
Other Kickers/Punters on the Roster: Trent Mossbrucker (Sr)#*, John Wienke (Sr), Jonny Mullings (So), Marshall Koehn (RFr), Connor Kornbrath (TrFr)
Other Experienced Return Men: Keenan Davis (Sr)#*, Kevonte Martin-Manley (So), Damon Bullock (So)
The Lowdown: Mike Meyer began his sophomore campaign hitting 12-of-14 field goals before falling off, making only two of his final six.
Furthermore, he, and Iowa, ranked dead last in touchback percentage on kickoffs with 5.88 percent.
Finally, Micah Hyde wasn't impressive on punt returns in 2011, and, speaking as a Hawkeye fan, I hope Kirk Ferentz opens up the competition for punt return duties.
PK: Mitch Ewald (Jr)**
KO: Mitch Ewald (Jr)**
KR: Shane Wynn (So)* OR Kenny Mullen (So)* OR Nick Stoner (So)*
Other Kickers/Punters on the Roster: Nick Freeland (Sr), Mitchell Voss (Jr), Nathan Reisman (Jr), Chad Roggerman (Jr), Erich Toth (RFr)
Other Experienced Return Men: Stephen Houston (Jr), Duwyce Wilson (Jr)
The Lowdown: Mitch Ewald is a solid place kicker, having hit 82.9 percent of his career field goal attempts.
On the other hand, his kickoffs have left something to be desired. IU ranked third-to-last in the conference in touchback percentage on kickoffs.
Punter and punt returner are open.
Finally, IU returns every player that returned a kickoff in 2011. The problem was those players averaged a third-to-last 19.21 YPR, and that was with one touchdown to bolster the average.
PK: Brendan Gibbons (Jr)**
P: Matt Wile (So)* OR Will Hagerup (Jr)**
KO: Matt Wile (So)*
PR: Jeremy Gallon (Jr)**
Other Kickers/Punters on the Roster: Steve Broekhuizen (Jr)#*
Other Experienced Return Men: Vincent Smith (Sr), Drew Dileo (Jr)
The Lowdown: Brady Hoke not only fixed the defensive mess left behind by Rich Rodriguez but also improved a holy mess at special teams.
Hoke took 2010's worst field goal kicking unit in the nation and turned it into the conference's sixth best.
Punter is still an issue, as Wile and Hagerup split duties last season, with the combined totals measuring out to the conference's second-worst average.
I was always surprised that Rodriguez's Michigan never found an explosive return man, given that every offensive skill position player was a glorified slot receiver.
Many of those slot receivers are still on the team and, along with Gallon, should provide some options as a returner.
Minnesota Golden Gophers
PK: Jordan Wettstein (Sr)* OR Chris Hawthorne (Jr)*
P: Dan Orseske (So)**
KO: Chris Hawthorne (Jr)* OR Jordan Wettstein (Sr)*
KR: Marcus Jones (So)* OR Malcolm Moulton (Jr)* OR Troy Stoudermire (Sr)#**
PR: Brandon Green (Sr)* OR OPEN
Other Kickers/Punters on the Roster: David Schwerman (Sr), Peter Mortell (RFr)
Other Experienced Return Men: Devin Crawford-Tufts (So)
The Lowdown: The Gophers return both of their field goal kickers, who averaged a combined 80 percent on 15 kicks.
On the other hand, they ranked ninth in the conference on touchback percentage.
Meanwhile, Orseske led—or failed to lead—Minnesota to the worst punt average in the conference and sixth-worst in the country.
The Gophers had a respectable return game but never settled on one player. One of the key return men from last season—running back Duane Bennett—has exhausted his eligibility.
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images
PK: Kyle French (So)* OR Alec Lerner (Jr)
KO: Alec Lerner (Jr)*
KR: Jared Abbrederis (Jr)* OR James White (Jr)*
PR: Jared Abbrederis (Jr)**
Other Kickers/Punters on the Roster: Drew Meyer (RFr)
Other Experienced Return Men: Kenzel Doe (So)
The Lowdown: The Big Ten doesn't give out conference honors for return men, but if it did, Jared Abbrederis would have won it for punt returner in 2011.
The junior was easily the best in the conference—15.75 YPC on 20 returns—and led the Badgers to the second-best team average in the conference.
He was also solid on kickoffs, averaging a conference sixth-best 24.61 YPR.
UW graduated both its starting punter and kicker, but Kyle French got valuable experience in the beginning of the season before injured starter Phillip Welch returned.
French and Lerner will compete for the place kicker job.
Finally, punter is a worry, as there is nobody on the roster. Meyer was most recently at the top of the depth chart.
P: Cody Webster (Jr)**
KR: Raheem Mostert (So)*
PR: Josh Johnson (Sr)#* OR Ricardo Allen (Jr) OR OPEN
Other Kickers/Punters on the Roster: Robert Harris (Jr), Sam McCartney (RFr), Ryan Ullrich (RFr), Paul Griggs (TrFr), Thomas Meadows (TrFr)
Other Experienced Return Men: Antavian Edison (Sr), Akeem Hunt (So)
The Lowdown: The Boilers return their second-team all-conference punter. One would assume he will also be in the running for kickoff duties.
Also, Raheem Mostert led the nation in kickoff return average with 33.48 YPR.
Meanwhile, second-team all-conference kicker Cody Webster is gone, as is top punt return man, Waynelle Gravesand.
PK: Jeff Budzien (Jr)*
P: Brandon Williams (Jr)**
KO: Steve Flaherty (Sr)*
KR: Mark Venric (Jr)**
PR: Mark Venric (Jr)**
Other Kickers/Punters on the Roster: Arthur Omilian (RFr), Chris Gradone (RFr)
Other Experienced Return Men: None
The Lowdown: The good news is that Northwestern had the fifth-best punting in the conference in 2011, and Mark Venric, though he didn't have a great season, has proven how dangerous he can be.
The bad news is the Wildcats had the conference's second-worst touchback percentage on kickoffs at 9.09 percent.
Even worse, Northwestern had the fewest field goal attempts with 10 and the lowest field goal percentage with 60 percent.
Michigan State Spartans
PK: Dan Conroy (Sr)**
P: Mike Sadler (So)*
KO: Kevin Muma (Jr)**
KR: Nick Hill (So)*
PR: Nick Hill (So)* OR OPEN
Other Kickers/Punters on the Roster: None
Other Experienced Return Men: Bennie Fowler (Jr)#*
The Lowdown: Mark Dantonio has built his program on strong special teams, though last season—arguably his most successful season—the special teams were only better-than-average.
The best unit was the punting, which finished fourth in the conference, averaging 40.78 YPP.
Field goal kicking was down, as Conroy followed an all-conference sophomore campaign by hitting 73.9 percent of his field goal attempts, down almost 20 percent from 2010.
Meanwhile, Kevin Muma put MSU sixth in the conference in touchback percentage on kickoffs.
Nick Hill paced the Spartans to the fourth-best kickoff return average in the Big Ten. Nevertheless, MSU had to say goodbye to Keshawn Martin, its top punt returner and one of the most dangerous return men in the country.
Ohio State Buckeyes
PK: Drew Basil (Jr)*
P: Ben Buchanan (Sr)**
KO: Drew Basil (Jr)**
KR: Jordan Hall (Sr)**
PR: Jordan Hall (Sr)** OR Chris Fields (Jr)
Other Kickers/Punters on the Roster: Russell Doup (So), Kyle Clinton (RFr), Kevin Niehoff (RFr)
Other Experienced Return Men: Corey Brown (Jr), C.J. Barnett (Jr), Carlos Hyde (Jr), Devin Smith (So)
The Lowdown: Jordan Hall is one of the most dangerous return men in the conference, and he will look to put on a show in his senior year.
Meanwhile, Ben Buchanan was the third-best individual punter in the Big Ten in YPP.
Finally, Basil led the conference, nailing 84.2 percent of his field goal attempts.
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
PK: Brett Maher (Sr)*
P: Brett Maher (Sr)*
KO: Brett Maher (Sr)*
KR: Ameer Abdullah (So)*
PR: Ameer Abdullah (So)*
Other Kickers/Punters on the Roster: Mauro Bondi (So)
Other Experienced Return Men: Tim Marlowe (Sr)#**, Rex Burkhead (Sr)
The Lowdown: In 2010, the Huskers said goodbye to their all-conference punter/All-American kicker Alex Henery, as well as their top return man, Niles Paul.
Apparently, that was no problem as Brett Maher walked ably into both kicking roles, while Ameer Abdullah had the ninth-highest kickoff return average in the country.
Look for both to reprise their roles in 2012.