B/R CFB 150: Top 18 Specialists and Returners

Bleacher Report College Football StaffFeatured ColumnistJanuary 20, 2017

B/R CFB 150: Top 18 Specialists and Returners

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    Bleacher Report's CFB 150 is an annual ranking of the best players in college football, regardless of NFL potential. Authors David Kenyon, Brian Pedersen and Barrett Sallee have studied, ranked and graded the top athletes in the country, narrowed that list down and sorted by position. Today, Kenyon presents the top six kickers, punters and returners.

    Other CFB 150 Positions

    Place-kickers are the easiest to judge. While process matters, the end result is what's most important: They either make it or miss it. The same cannot be said for punters or returners since basic yardage does not tell the entire story.

    For specialists who handled multiple roles, kicking and punting duties were judged independently of each other.

    The following rankings are based primarily on one's skills as a college player rather than how he would fare in the NFL. Though these players may be using this time to develop their game for the pro level, their goals are centered on helping their teams succeed.

Place-Kickers 6-4: Koo, Carpenter, Rehkow

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    6. Younghoe Koo, Georgia Southern

    Class: Senior

    2016 Stats: 19-of-20 FG (long of 53); 28-of-29 XP

    Kickers have limited opportunities to impact a game. Georgia State mustered a 5-7 record, yet Younghoe Koo was nearly perfect. The senior only missed one field goal all season, and it was from 54 yards on a hash mark. That's a long kick and a forgivable miss for the first-team Sun Belt honoree.

              

    5. Emmit Carpenter, Minnesota

    Class: Sophomore

    2016 Stats: 22-of-24 FG (long of 53); 43-of-44 XP

    Boasting a 91.7 field-goal rate, Emmit Carpenter emerged as one of the nation's most reliable place-kicking threats. The sophomore split the uprights on all 10 kicks beyond 40 yards, including a pair of field goals from 50-plus. Carpenter buried two clutch attempts at Penn State and added a last-second game-winner against Rutgers.

         

    4. Austin Rehkow, Idaho

    Class: Senior

    2016 Stats: 26-of-29 FG (long of 50); 42-of-44 XP

    A rare specialist who handled all three kicking duties, Austin Rehkow put together his best college season as a senior. Rehkow connected on all 10 field goals within 30 yards and drilled eight of 10 attempts from 40 yards or farther. He made a game-winning kick against Louisiana-Monroe.

3. Gary Wunderlich, Ole Miss

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    Class: Junior

    2016 Stats: 22-of-23 FG (long of 49); 41-of-43 XP

    No place-kicker was more accurate than Gary Wunderlich. He finished 2016 with a Football Bowl Subdivision-best 95.7 percent clip.

    "His nickname is G Money," teammate A.J. Moore said, according to Antonio Morales of the Clarion-Ledger. "Everybody knows he's really about that action and is going to go out there and do his part. Everybody is confident [in him]."

    Wunderlich's signature moment came against Texas A&M when he capped Ole Miss' wild fourth-quarter comeback win with a 39-yard field goal in the final minute.

2. Zane Gonzalez, Arizona State

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    Class: Senior

    2016 Stats: 23-of-25 FG (long of 59); 39-of-40 XP

    During a season in which Zane Gonzalez broke the NCAA record for most made field goals, he also only watched two drift the wrong way.

    "His consistency is impressive," UCLA coach Jim Mora said, per ESPN.com's Kevin Gemmell. "He's kind of got it all. He's got great operation time, great leg, accuracy ... He's a guy we're going to watch on Sundays for a long, long time."

    Gonzalez never had an opportunity to win a game late, but he helped Arizona State crawl back against UT-San Antonio and scored the Sun Devils' final points in a three-point victory over Mora and the Bruins.

1. Daniel Carlson, Auburn

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    Class: Junior

    2016 Stats: 28-of-32 FG (long of 53); 44-of-44 XP

    When Auburn's offense struggled to finish drives, Daniel Carlson typically picked up the slack.

    "He's a game-changer," Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said, per Tom Green of AL.com. "He's a weapon. You've got confidence to let him kick it 50-plus. There's not a whole lot of coaches that have that luxury."

    Carlson accounted for all 18 points in a five-point victory over LSU and buried the go-ahead kick against Ole Miss. Of the four field goals he missed, three came outside of 50 yards, and the other was during a win over Vanderbilt.

Punters 6-4: Haack, Dickson, Johnston

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    6. Matt Haack, Arizona State

    Class: Senior

    2016 Stats: 66 punts, 43.89-yard average

    Though opponents kept trying to return Matt Haack's punts, it was a consistently fruitless endeavor. Arizona State surrendered just 65 yards on 19 attempts, and after factoring in three touchbacks on 66 kicks, Haack's net average dipped to a still-impressive 42 yards even.

              

    5. Michael Dickson, Texas

    Class: Sophomore

    2016 Stats: 65 punts, 47.37-yard average

    Michael Dickson's nine touchbacks are the most of any specialist on the list, but he atoned for it. Nineteen of Dickson's punts were returned, and the Longhorns ceded just 93 yards. Per B/R research, excluding touchbacks, 31 kicks ended at or inside the 20-yard line, and 14 ensuing drives began at or inside the 10. Dickson wrapped up the season with a 43.17-yard net average.

         

    4. Cameron Johnston, Ohio State

    Class: Senior

    2016 Stats: 56 punts, 46.68-yard average

    Cameron Johnston was a weapon for Ohio State. "He's amazing," teammate Jalyn Holmes said, per Bill Rabinowitz of the Columbus Dispatch. "Coach can be like, 'Put it on the 1,' and he puts it on the 1." Johnston netted 43.96 yards, also dropping nine punts inside the 10-yard line and four inside the five.

3. Zach Sinor, Oklahoma State

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    Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

    Class: Sophomore

    2016 Stats: 56 punts, 42.77-yard average

    The unfortunate truth for punters like Zach Sinor is only a niche group care about better ways of tracking stats. Well, we are one.

    Sinor's average ranked 32nd nationally—which seems mildly notable at bestbut he was tremendously efficient.

    According to B/R research, Sinor had just one touchback on the season while dropping 39 punts at or inside the 20-yard line (excluding touchbacks) and deadening 13 kicks at or inside the 10. Additionally, Oklahoma State surrendered just 15 yards on 16 return attempts.

2. Joseph Davidson, Bowling Green

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    Class: Junior

    2016 Stats: 61 punts, 45.75-yard average

    Bowling Green enjoyed a record-setting season in 2015, but roster turnover and coaching changes led to a disappointing 2016 campaign. At least Joseph Davidson was as reliable as ever.

    The third-year starter kept his average above 45 yards for the second straight year, something only accomplished by Florida's Johnny Townsend. Davidson ranked sixth in the category this season.

    In addition to being named a fourth-team All-American by Phil Steele, Davidson was the first-team All-MAC punter.

1. Mitch Wishnowsky, Utah

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    Class: Sophomore

    2016 Stats: 64 punts, 47.70-yard average

    Mitch Wishnowsky was far beyond "best punter in the nation." The gap between him and second place, quite frankly, was a chasm.

    The Australian continued Utah's unique specialist powerhouse, taking home the program's third straight Ray Guy Award. Wishnowsky's net average of 44.31 yards led the country, per Pro Football Focus.

    "We knew he was a talent when we recruited him," Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said, according to Kyle Goon of the Salt Lake Tribune. "But I couldn't say we knew he would do what he's done. ... He's got some incredible stats. I don't know what more he could've done for us."

Returners 6-4: Sanders, Phillips, Henderson

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    6. C.J. Sanders, Notre Dame

    Class: Sophomore

    2016 Stats: 29 KR, 25.0-yard average, 2 TD; 10 PR, 12.5-yard avg.

    C.J. Sanders made a terrible mistake on a punt return against Miami that gifted the 'Canes a touchdown. But he also returned a pair of kickoffs for touchdowns—something only seven players accomplished this season. Sanders added a 40-yard punt return that set up a go-ahead score in Notre Dame's opener.

         

    5. Darius Phillips, Western Michigan

    Class: Junior

    2016 Stats: 37 KR, 22.5-yard average, 1 TD; 19 PR, 11.7-yard avg., 1 TD

    The 2016 MAC Special Teams Player of the Year, Darius Phillips earned a place as a member of an exclusive club. Only three other returners took back both a kick and a punt in 2016. "He's one of the most valuable players on our team," former Western Michigan coach P.J. Fleck said in November, per Chris Nelsen of the Detroit Free Press.

         

    4. Carlos Henderson, Louisiana Tech

    Class: Junior

    2016 Stats: 25 KR, 32.2-yard average, 2 TD

    Carlos Henderson is the only player in the top six who never fielded a punt, but he was really good on kickoffs. In addition to speeding past the coverage teams for a touchdown twice, Henderson opened the Armed Forces Bowl with an 82-yard return. The junior secured first-team All-Sun Belt nods as both a receiver (82 catches, 1,535 yards, 19 touchdowns) and returner.

3. Jabrill Peppers, Michigan

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    Class: Sophomore

    2016 Stats: 10 KR, 26.0-yard average; 21 PR, 14.8-yard avg., 1 TD

    No returner had the ability to create something out of nothing better than Jabrill Peppers.

    "He's a tremendous returner, in space," Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher said, per Wayne E. McGahee III of the Tallahassee Democrat. "When they put him back there, he's a natural runner with the ball."

    Peppers often forced multiple missed tackles on his attempts, turning a couple of yards into 10 or 15. Even though teams started to kick away from him, Peppers tallied the third-most punt-return yards nationally.

    Though the redshirt sophomore doesn't get credit for a sensational score that was called back (but seriously, watch it), he returned one punt to the house and consistently handed the offense more yards than an average returner.

2. Adoree' Jackson, USC

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    Class: Junior

    2016 Stats: 26 KR, 29.5-yard average, 2 TD; 20 PR, 15.8-yard avg., 2 TD

    "I think every returner has the feeling that this could be the moment to change the game and take it to the house," Adoree' Jackson said, per Jeff Miller of the Orange County Register. "I feel like if I touch the ball, I should be able to make something happen every time."

    Quite often, the speedster did exactly that.

    Jackson returned two kicks and two punts for touchdowns in 2016, including one of each in the regular-season finale against Notre Dame. He paced the FBS with 315 punt-return yards.

1. Quadree Henderson, Pitt

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    Class: Sophomore

    2016 Stats: 30 KR, 30.5-yard average, 3 TD; 16 PR, 15.8-yard avg., 1 TD

    Perhaps the sport's most underrated versatile weapon, Quadree Henderson filled an important role on Pitt's offense but flat-out shined as the leader of both return units.

    Henderson compiled the fifth-highest kick-return average and tied for third on punt returns. The sophomore scored three times on kickoffs and added an 84-yard return against Penn State. He also took one punt to paydirt and recorded 30-plus-yard returns in two more games.

    In simpler terms, Henderson ripped off an explosive return in seven of Pitt's 13 games. That's amazing consistency for a special teamer.

    "He's something special," teammate James Conner said, according to Lauren Kirschman of PennLive. "Every time he catches the ball, he's liable to go the distance. He's a beast."