One of the most unappreciated players from last year's squad was likely placekicker Amado Villarreal, who, despite not hitting any monster (50+ yard) field goals, had a very solid season—in fact, by the percentage of field goals hit in the regular season, he had the best season in NU history. The 'Cats hadn't had that kind of reliability at the kicker spot for almost a decade (possibly since Long in 2000), but this season NU will be looking to replace not only him, but the senior long snapping battery of Brunner and Daley as well.
The one guy that Northwestern will have back is junior Stefan Demos, and now the question is what/how much kicking will he do in 2009?
With Villarreal lost to graduation, NU has no clear option at placekicker, although in all likelihood, Demos, who's been handling punting over the past 2 seasons, will shift into that spot. Demos was a highly touted recruit a few seasons ago, and although we've seen him take some practice FG tries and handle some kickoffs, he's been mostly relegated to punting duty where his rugby-style punts have been ugly if not effective. In those aforementioned field goal attempts during practice, we've seen him kick some long (50+ yard) attempts, so we know he's got the leg. In the 2009 spring game he also booted a few FG tries, indicating he'll be the placekicker to start the season. The question is can he translate that talent into on-the-field success and become a reliable kicker that also has some range—something that isn't so easy, especially in some high-pressure situations found in Big Ten football.
Look for Demos to put up some impressive kicks from time to time (in terms of distance), but it's really hard to predict reliability in a kicker, so that's anyone's guess. The hope is that he'll stay healthy (he had injuries during at least two of the first three years in the NU program), and that can be aided by getting some assistance from other kickers on kickoff and punts. The other options for placekicker are, realistically, limited to incoming true freshman Budzien, a solid recruit, but very much a question mark at the collegiate level, redshirt freshman Flaherty, and true freshman Brandon Williams.
So, if Demos takes over placekicking duties and he's the only player on the current roster listed as a punter (he's actually listed as punter/placekicker), then who will punt? I would bet on one of the younger guys (Budzien, Flaherty, or Williams), although things could change quickly with the job getting dumped back on Demos—who has proven to be rather consistent in his punting (nevermind punting directly to Maclin at the end of the first half of the Alamo Bowl).
Northwestern is definitely favoring the 3x3 "rugby style" punt formation, which it used the vast majority of the time last season, although a change in the rulebook will no longer protect punters outside of the "tackle box" (which is very small in such a formation) by removing the roughing the kicker penalty outside of that region. It will be interesting to see if such a rule change limits the effectiveness of the formation, which allowed teams (like NU) to get much better coverage on the punt than the traditional formation.
In terms of personnel, if things don't work out with the young kickers, Demos could be inserted back in that spot (as mentioned earlier) with the other kickers fighting it out for the placekicker spot. Or, Fitz could very well leave all of the kicking up to Demos and hope that his leg doesn't fall off. Really, only time will tell on this one—and it may be a fluid situation even within the season.
After graduating the reliable senior tandem from a year ago, NU will need to fill those shoes with guys they can count on, and fortunately they've already been identified. Junior John Henry Pace has been groomed for the long snapping spot and will be joined by senior WR Zeke Markshausen as the holder (according to what we saw in the spring game). With a few years in the program, Pace should be able to step in just fine, and Markshausen, as a WR, should have "good hands" which will help in handling those snaps. If they're doing their jobs well, nobody will ever realize they're there.
The one aspect of special teams that has been missing consistency under Fitz is a solid return game. Yes, coverage teams have been MUCH improved (NU fans no longer need to hold their breath when the 'Cats kick off or punt), but significant returns have been few and far between. Don't blame Fitz for lack of scheming, though, as he's tried many different return men with different blocking schemes, but few have resulted in consistent returns. The biggest returns over his tenure have been Smith's 50+ yard punt return last year against Illinois (that set up NU's game-securing score) and Simmons' kickoff return for a TD against OSU in 2007, NU's only score of the game, and outside of that there has been little to speak of. Hopefully he can find the right combination of blockers/blocking scheme/return men to get something going in 2009, as the relatively inexperienced offensive skill players could use a short field from time to time.
Kick returners are listed as Simmons and McManis—both guys who have shown flashes as KRs, but don't expect to see them as kick returners all year since they'll both have significant starting spots on offense and defense, respectively. Returning kicks is a dangerous job and Fitz, despite being the special teams "coach" and focusing on that part of the game, has seemed reluctant to keep his starters in such roles. If he holds them back, NU has a bevy of speed, especially with some of the younger guys, so don't be surprised to see someone like Matthews or Mabin put in to return a kick (in fact, both were back there at one point last season).
The punt returners are listed as Smith and Brewer. Smith has easily been the most effective punt returner in recent years, although that isn't saying much. Brewer has the speed, and if he's back to full health hopefully he can make something happen. Look for Fitz to stick with someone more experienced as a punt returner, given the higher probability of mistakes (muffs). Again, hopefully the Wildcats can get something going on punt returns from time to time.
There are often a lot of question marks on special teams this time of year as players find their roles on the team, but hopefully the Wildcats can find some help for Demos in the kicking arena as well as some effective returners. Special teams may seem like small potatoes, but it always results in large yardage swings that can set up the offense or defense for success in the ensuing drive. The improvement in the coverage team has helped NU's defense immensely over the past couple seasons, and that was especially evident last year as forcing teams to drive from deep in their own end helped the Wildcat D more often than not. And with an offense that will be looking to find its way, NU needs a spark on special teams to give them an edge.
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