Projecting Every Conference's Best Specialists for the 2021 CFB Season
College football specialists are in a difficult spot. Kickers, punters and returners are typically only discussed if they do something really good or really, really bad.
Let's focus on the positive side, shall we?
As we conclude our best-of-the-conference series, specialists have a well-earned moment in the spotlight. These are the most reliable kickers, best punters and explosive returners for the 2021 season.
The emphasis is largely on kickers, punters and their past performance. Established returners are included, but teams may cycle through a few options during the season. Anyone who isn't a previous or reported contributor isn't considered.
B/R's Best-of-the-Conference Series
AAC: Houston Cougars
East Carolina and Tulane both enter 2021 with healthy units, but Houston's group of specialists is fantastic.
Last season, Marcus Jones led the Football Bowl Subdivision with 19.8 yards per punt return and scored one touchdown. He also brings experience as a kick returner. While at Troy in 2017 and 2018, he took four kickoffs back for a score.
If Jones isn't returning kicks for the Cougars this season, it will probably be Nathaniel Dell, who averaged a solid 25.8 yards in 2020.
Additionally, Houston's legs are proficient.
Dalton Witherspoon is 35-of-43 on field goals and a perfect 132-of-132 on extra points in his career. And not only did Laine Wilkins average 41.7 yards per punt last season, opponents literally never went forward. They attempted to run back four punts, lost a total of five yards and had a long return of zero yards.
ACC: North Carolina State Wolfpack
Clemson is undisputed king of the ACC's Atlantic Division, but North Carolina State is viewed as the No. 2 team. And an underappreciated part of that recognition is a strong specialist group.
The kicker is Christopher Dunn, a three-year starter who's never missed an extra point and is 56-of-67 on field goals. Dunn, a two-time second-team All-ACC selection, holds the 28th-best career field-goal percentage (83.6) in college football since 1956.
While the punt coverage unit has room to improve, Trenton Gill has a powerful leg. He posted top-15 marks nationally in yards per punt during both the 2019 and 2020 seasons.
Lastly, NC State's returners have earned a lot of respect. Zonovan Knight returned a kickoff for a touchdown and averaged 26.6 yards last season, and Thayer Thomas has averaged 10.9 yards per punt return throughout the last three years.
Big 12: Texas Longhorns
Bring us in, Gus Johnson: "Dicker, the Kicker!"
The hero of Texas' upset over Oklahoma in 2018, Cameron Dicker secured second-team All-Big 12 recognition last year. For his career, he's 28-of-33 inside of 40 yards, 19-of-31 from 40-plus yards and has only missed one extra point each season in 157 attempts.
Dicker might also be the punter in 2021, and the Longhorns have another reliable option if not. Dicker averaged 43.6 yards per kick after replacing Ryan Bujcevski, who notched 43.3 prior to an ACL tear.
Additionally, kick returner D'Shawn Jamison has averaged 32.4 yards and scored twice on 25 runbacks in the last two seasons.
Oklahoma's trio of placekicker Gabe Brkic, punter Reeves Mundschau and returner Marvin Mims are worth a mention, too.
Big Ten: Rutgers Scarlet Knights
Rutgers! No, really!
Iowa lost placekicker Keith Duncan, Michigan's kickers are unreliable, Ohio State is replacing both specialists, and the inglorious list goes on. So, Rutgers!
Aron Cruickshank returned two kickoffs for touchdowns at Wisconsin in 2019, transferred to Rutgers and did so again in 2020. In the Big Ten, his 26.8-yard average only trailed Michigan's Giles Jackson (27.2), who left Ann Arbor for Washington this offseason.
Although punter Adam Korsak ended seventh in the Big Ten in average (43.0), Rutgers allowed only 33 return yards all season. Korsak's 42.3-yard net average was a school record.
The offense didn't score much in 2020, so neither Valentino Ambrosio nor Guy Fava had many chances to kick. Nevertheless, they combined to make 11-of-13 field goals and 21-of-22 extra points.
C-USA: UAB Blazers
Conference USA has an awfully impressive group of specialists.
UTSA returns first-team All-Conference USA kicker Hunter Duplessis and punter Lucas Dean. Second-team kicker Brayden Narveson and punter John Haggerty are back at Western Kentucky, while UAB has honorable mention kicker Matt Quinn.
On the surface, UAB punter Kyle Greenwell is the odd player out. But he might actually be the best player at his position.
Last year, he ranked ninth in C-USA with 42.6 yards per punt. However, opponents only returned 12 punts for an average of 6.4 yards. Greenwell had a higher net average than Dean and Haggerty.
Factor in Jermaine Brown Jr.'s 25.5 yards per kick return, and the Blazers are deep on special teams in 2021.
MAC: Central Michigan Chippewas
This one is basically a toss-up.
Northern Illinois brings back kicker John Richardson, punter Matt Ference and second-team All-MAC kick returner Trayvon Rudolph. If the punt returner—perhaps Rudolph or Cole Tucker—can be more explosive, the Huskies will be a contender for the best.
But the preseason favorite is Central Michigan. Led by kicker Marshall Meeder and punter Luke Elzinga, both of whom were first-team All-MAC selections last year, the Chippewas have a very experienced unit.
Punt returner Kalil Pimpleton averaged 8.2 yards in 2019 and 2020 combined, and kick returner Kobe Lewis is at 22.5 yards in the same span. Those numbers would've ranked 19th and 40th in the nation last season, respectively.
Mountain West: Nevada Wolf Pack
While the Mountain West's most talented specialists are scattered across the conference, Nevada has great balance.
Julian Diaz paced the conference with 46.4 yards per attempt and had a single touchback in 2020. Brandon Talton has served as the placekicker for two years and is 36-of-43 on field goals, and three of those seven misses are from 50-plus yards.
Romeo Doubs averaged 9.1 yards per punt return, the Mountain West's third-best mark. Kick returner Jamaal Bell, who tallied 21.8 yards per runback last season, completes Nevada's core of specialists.
Talton (first team), Doubs (second team) and Diaz (honorable mention) each earned All-Mountain West recognition in 2020.
Pac-12: USC Trojans
Utah has a reputation for top-tier specialists, and placekicker Jadon Redding seems to be carrying on that tradition. However, punter Ben Lennon has room to develop in 2021.
For now, the Utes are chasing USC.
Ben Griffiths posted 46.4 yards per punt in the shortened 2020 season. Had he qualified for the national rankings, it would've been the fifth-highest average. Parker Lewis converted 9-of-13 field goals—including a 4-of-6 mark from 40-plus yards—and made all 23 extra points.
And at kick returner, Gary Bryant Jr. ranked second in the Pac-12 with a 26.3-yard average for the season. The second-year player is expected to return punts in 2021, too.
SEC: Georgia Bulldogs
The SEC is loaded with respected kickers, including Auburn's Anders Carlson, Alabama's Will Reichard and LSU's Cade York.
But if Jack Podlesny puts together an even better year, Georgia has a well-rounded group of specialists.
Podlesny did a terrific job replacing cult hero Rodrigo Blankenship last season, hitting 13-of-16 field goals and all 38 extra points.
The star of UGA's show, though, is punter Jake Camarda. Last year, the third-team Associated Press All-American ranked No. 4 nationally with 46.6 yards per punt. Opponents returned only four of his 36 kicks.
Georgia's return unit also has terrific upside. Kearis Jackson served as the primary kick and punt returner last season, and Kenny McIntosh averaged 36.3 yards per kick return on six attempts.
No matter the top option in 2021, the Dawgs are in great shape.
Sun Belt: Louisiana Ragin' Cajuns
Louisiana has an ideal example of why special teams are critical.
To begin the 2020 season, the Ragin' Cajuns traveled to Iowa State. Chris Smith took a kickoff for a touchdown, and Eric Garror returned a punt for a score. Despite mustering only 272 yards of offense, Louisiana still won 31-14.
Smith and Garror are back in 2021, along with second-team All-Sun Belt punter Rhys Byrns. He averaged 43.5 yards per punt last season, and the coverage unit ranked 49th in the country.
Rounding out the group is kicker Kenneth Almendares, who converted on all 23 extra points and went 5-of-5 on field goals.