Big Ten Football: Ranking the Big Ten Kick Returners
Every Tuesday, The Big Ten Blog will rank the top player at each position for each team in the Big Ten. Today, we're hitting the guys who can turn the tide of any game with just one well-timed cut and a sprint: the kick returners.
Kick return teams are usually duos, but they're so subject to change by coaches—both here in the offseason and week-by-week during the season—that we'll just use the single most likely return man on each team.
The Big Ten is absolutely loaded here, by the way; there are at least eight guys on the list who should be able to contend for the conference title in yards per kick return, and if some of the more lightly-used returners emerge as legitimate home run threats, this could be the best conference of kick returners in the nation.
12. Iowa: Kevonte Martin-Manley
Iowa misses the services of both Jordan Bernstine (graduated) and Jordan Canzeri (knee injury) here, but Martin-Manley looks like Kirk Ferentz's guy. Iowa may also take a look at CB/PR Micah Hyde on kickoff duty, though Ferentz may not want Hyde taking that many hits in addition to playing corner.
11. Michigan: Jeremy Gallon
Gallon looks perfectly and physically suited to take kicks back at 5'8" and 185 pounds, but he only saw spot duty there last year after a disastrously fumble-tastic 2010 season.
Vincent Smith is also back after returning kicks in 2011, but he was so uninspiring (18.4 yards per return) that as long as Gallon holds onto the ball, he almost can't be a step down from Smith.
10. Ohio State: Devin Smith
This was originally going to be Jordan Hall, and Hall was going to be a lot higher on the list. That's before his lawn tried to cut his foot off, though, and now we're left to guess who'll be in Hall's place since Urban Meyer never bothered to fill out the return specialists in his spring depth chart.
So let's say it's Devin Smith, who returned four kickoffs for 86 yards in 2012—all against Indiana. Yeah, that's all. So what we're trying to say is this: Get well soon, Mr. Hall.
9. Penn State: Adrian Amos
Amos didn't accomplish much as a kick returner in 2011, but he looked okay with about 20 yards a pop in eight returns. He's the leading returning returner with Chaz Powell graduating, and he's atop the depth chart this season with reserve tailback Bill Belton expected to join him in the return game.
Amos' physical talents make him a tantalizing returner, but he needs to show the production on the field before he can rise on this list.
8. Indiana: Shane Wynn
As a freshman in 2011, the diminutive (5'7", 156) Wynn topped the 1,000-yard mark in kick returns, including a 99-yard touchdown against Illinois on the opening kick. Wynn should continue to grow into the role and excel in 2012 and beyond.
7. Northwestern: Venric Mark
Northwestern's shifty kick return specialist averaged about 23 yards per return in 2011, and the only reason that was down from the roughly 26 yards per pop that he managed as a freshman in 2010 was the absence of a touchdown, like the 90-yard return he broke in 2010.
He's always a threat to do it again, though, so don't read too much into the lack of scores by Mark last year.
6. Wisconsin: Jared Abbrederis
The fact that Abbrederis played most of last season with an injured foot and still took kicks back at a clip of nearly 25 yards per clip speaks to Abbrederis' toughness and athletic ability. The fact that his foot's better and Abbrederis is still sixth on this list speaks to how loaded the Big Ten is at kick returner in 2012.
As long as Bret Bielema still wants his top wideout taking kicks back, Abbrederis should be a major asset for the Badgers' special teams. That may not always be the case—especially if Abbrederis gets dinged up again—but for now, count on a good year from the former Oregon wideout.
5. Michigan State: Nick Hill
Another member of a bumper crop of freshman return men in the Big Ten is Nick Hill, who broke 10 returns of 30+ yards and five of at least 40 yards en route to logging 999 kick return yards. His 26.3 yards per return were the second best in Michigan State history. And, again: a freshman in 2011.
With Le'Veon Bell and Edwin Baker firmly entrenched above him on the depth chart at tailback, Hill will be free to excel as a return specialist (and, well, emergency backup tailback) in 2012.
4. Illinois: Tommy Davis
This is a name that won't be familiar to many Big Ten fans, but Tommy Davis was a two-time All-MAC return specialist at Northern Illinois who transferred to Illinois last week under the graduate exemption and will be a tremendous boon to an Illinois special teams unit that desperately needed the help.
This is the kick returner version of Wisconsin landing Danny O'Brien at quarterback—it's that big of an upgrade.
3. Minnesota: Troy Stoudermire
Troy Stoudermire is the Big Ten's all-time leading kick returner. As in, that's the case right now and with a full season left to go after he was granted a medical hardship waiver to get a sixth year after missing most of 2011 to injury. And he's got his sights set on higher goals this year.
Stoudermire's per-kick numbers aren't great, which is why he's only third here, but if he even gets back to being Minnesota's primary kick returner, he'll rewrite the history books; he's 20 returns and 413 return yards away from being the NCAA's all-time career leader in both. One can and should expect Stoudermire to easily clear both hurdles.
2. Nebraska: Ameer Abdullah
It'll be interesting to see whether Abdullah is protected a little better now that he's essentially the Huskers' safety net for Rex Burkhead, but as long as Abdullah's back there to return, he should excel; he's lightning-fast, shifty and capable of big plays if he just gets one crease.
Abdullah was ninth in the nation (and second in the Big Ten) in average kick return yardage last season. That wasn't a fluke. Expect more.
1. Purdue: Raheem Mostert
Purdue's Raheem Mostert staked his claim as the Big Ten's best kick returner and then some last season. In 2011, Mostert led all eligible kick returners with an unreal 33.48 yards per return. That would be leading all kick returners in the nation, mind you. And that's as a freshman.
Now, full disclosure: It's extremely unlikely he'll get the kind of incremental improvement usually seen as a player progresses through his career, if only because by his senior year Mostert would then be getting like 40 yards a pop and that's not about to happen, but definitely expect another year over 30 yards per return.