By Greg Mroz
Photo Credit: Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
When analyzing a football team, obviously the offense and defense get the most attention. We don’t much think about the intangibles that the special teams unit provides, yet when really delving in to what Northwestern needs to be successful this season, special teams will play a huge part in whether this team is a Big Ten powerhouse or a 6-6 team that goes to a mediocre bowl game.
Junior placekicker Jeff Budzien is expected to be back in his role this year as the field goal kicker. While Budzien does not provide the agonizing missed extra points of his predecessor Stefan Demos, he did not give Northwestern enough confidence to use him consistently in field goal situations. Budzien made just 6 field goals on the year, yet he only attempted 10. His long was 47 yards and he was 2 for 5 on kicks over 40 yards. This could be a product of the fact Budzien may not have a big leg, but in order for this team to be successful, the offense cannot always go for it on 4th down. Trust is key when using a field goal kicker, and if NU cannot do that, they will not allow Budzien to reach his full potential, which may result in lost points and in turn lost games. Yet, expect Budzien to be better, now that he has one full season under his belt. If his leg allows him to kick more long field goals, then by all means the Cats are in good shape.
On the punting end of the spectrum, Brandon Williams must continue on the success that he had last season. His 40.8 yard average is darn good for a college punter, but when asking questions about Williams, one has to think strongly about his ability to place a punt in a corner or to keep it inside the 20 yard line. Pat Fitzgerald loves to employ the rugby style punt from time to time, and while that works when kicked away from a returner, the punt coverage is never set up correctly to catch the kick returner if it is kicked at him. If Williams just stays conventional, expect NU opponents to start with decently long fields after Williams punts.
Steve Flarhety is a solid kickoffs-only placekicker, but like Budzien, if he can strengthen his leg, he will give NU a better chance to win games by putting opponents at the 20 yard line instead of giving up a return to the 30. Longer fields give a defense more confidence, and the longer the field that Flarhety and the kick coverage team can provide, the better chance the defense has to prevent a big drive from happening.
Finally, the elusive Venric Mark cannot be left out of this conversation. Mark is one of if not the best pure burner that Northwestern has on the team, which is why he is so valuable on kick and punt returns. However, Mark is of no use if his blocking isn’t good, which is something that needs to improve. Mark can have a huge season, but the offense is so powerful that his success might frankly be just a big bonus to the Cats. Mark also needs to take better care of the ball, as he sometimes has the tendency to put it on the ground in untimely situations.
The bottom line is this though. Northwestern has and has always had a special teams unit that is serviceable at best. While Pat Fitzgerald is trying to change that, it will take development, and it would be worth a look to actually hire a special teams coach to help develop those players. As I once heard NFL linebacker Brian Cox say, special teams can make or break a game, and with the style of football that Northwestern plays, it needs to be good in order to succeed. I love Coach Fitz and most people do, but he knows nothing about being a kicker or a punter, so actually hiring somebody in that department might take reasonable talent and turn it into something that might vault the Wildcats to a special season. As for what NU has now, its good, but with further development, it can be much better.