Northwestern Special Team Preview
Results were largely mixed for the Northwestern special teams unit in 2013. With new faces coming in, there are a lot of question marks; here’s a look at what to expect from the kicking, punting and return units in 2014.
Kicking: Kicker Jeff Budzein was one of the best in the country last season and many thought he deserved more consideration for the Lou Groza award. With his departure, the Wildcats’ kicking game is dealt a huge blow. Redshirt freshman Hunter Niswander and junior Arthur Omilian are two of the top competitors for the starting job going forward, but place-kicking sophomores Matt Micucci and Jack Mitchell are also on the roster. No matter who wins the starting job, however, it’s tough to predict what kind of results the kicking game will produce this season. It’s also unlikely that the production will come close to what Budzein did last year, when he hit 23 of his 25 field goal attempts including 17 in a row to end the season.
Punting: Like the kicker position, a new face will have to step up after longtime starter Brandon Williams graduated this spring. Junior Chris Gradone had some experience punting last year after Williams was benched, but his performance wasn’t exactly overwhelming. He and Niswander are battling for the starting job in 2014. Unlike the kicker position, however, this season’s punter should surpass Williams’ contributions from last season. Williams averaged 36.0 yards per punt in 2013, which was dead last among starting punters in the Big Ten.
Kick/Punt Returns: Running back Venric Mark returns as a fifth-year senior and with the explosiveness to make big plays in the return game. However, it remains to be seen exactly how often he’s used in these situations. Mark was expected to make big contributions returning kicks last season but he only played one full game due to injuries; coach Pat Fitzgerald may use him less on return plays and focus on his role as a running back to reduce the risk of injury. Cornerback Matthew Harris filled in for Mark as the primary kick returner last season and played well. Now a sophomore, Harris could see significant time at the position again this fall. Senior wide-out Tony Jones took Mark’s place returning punts in 2013, but didn’t make any major contributions. He or Mark could return to that role in 2014.
Outlook: Uncertainty surrounds the Wildcats’ special teams this season. What was a position of strength in recent years for Northwestern could be a weakness this season, depending on what Niswander, Gradone and co. can provide. Interestingly enough, the changes at kicker and punter could affect the way the offensive coaching staff calls plays this year. Without a kicker as reliable as Budzein, the offense may attempt more fourth down conversions and take more risks than last season’s relatively conservative unit, which often settled for field goals. For now, we’ll just have to wait and see who wins the starting roles and how much of an impact the special teams make on Northwestern’s 2014 season.