Written By Sammy Jacobs (@Hoosier_Huddle)
We conclude our Top Five series about opposing units that Indiana will face in 2017 with a look at the best special teams units the Hoosiers will have to deal with. We looked at every aspect of what makes a special teams unit great from return men to how teams block kicks.
1. Penn State Nittany Lions
Unfortunately for the Nittany Lions kickoff specialist Joey Julius has left the team to fight his weight issues, but they still return a tremendous kicker in Tyler Davis. Davis was a perfect 62-for-62 on his extra points knocked home 22-of-24 field goal tries. The only knock on Davis is that his range may be limited. His long was only 40 yards, but he was 3-for-3 from that distance.
Penn State also returns arguably the best punter in the league in Blake Gillikin, who averaged 42.8 yards per punt (net average of 37.8) and pinned opponents inside their own 20-yard line 22 times on 61 punts.
In the return game Penn State returns running back Miles Sanders as their main kick returner but lost top punt returner cornerback John Reid to a knee injury in the spring. Reid returned 22 punts for 166 yards with a long return of 59 yards. Starting wide receiver DeAndre Thompkins could step into that role. Sanders was average on kick returns gaining just 20.8 yards per kick return with a long of 48. He needs to be more explosive at that position.
The loss of Julius on kick-offs will hurt and Penn State needs to get more explosion plays out of the return game, but with the assets they have returning, the Nittany Lions are a clear choice for our top spot.
2. Maryland Terrapins
After Penn State the race opens up a bit as many of Indiana’s other opponents field plenty of questions on special teams. However, Maryland is the best of the rest as punter Wade Lees and return man D.J. Moore lead this unit. Where the Terrapins need to have questions answered is at place kicker and punt returner as kicker Adam Greene was just 9-of-14 with a long of 37 yards in 2016 and All-American returner Teldrick Morgan is gone.
Punter Wade Lees had a solid 2016 campaign and is the Big Ten’s second leading punter base on average yards per kick returning in 2017. Lees punted 72 times for an average of 39.8 yards and a team net average of 38.2 meaning that the coverage unit and his ball placement deter a lot of returns.
D.J. Moore may be the best player nobody has heard of for the Terrapins. He’s a speedy receiver who can make defenders miss and go the distance. While he wasn’t as explosive as he could’ve been in 2016 averaging 22.3 yards per return, he is primed to become a difference maker for the Terrapins.
Kicker Adam Greene was solid, but not great as a junior going 9-of-14 but was 0-of-2 outside of 40 yards. He needs to earn the coaches’ trust more this season and bury his attempts if Maryland wants to keep up with the big boys of the Big Ten East.
3. Michigan Wolverines
In 2016 two players, kicker Kenny Allen and safety Jabrill Peppers, took care of most of the aspects of Michigan’s special teams units. Allen worked as both the primary punter (43.3 yards per punt) and field goal kicker (19-23) while Peppers returned the both kickoffs (25.8 yards per return) and punts (14.8 yards per return 1 TD). Both will have to be replaced in 2017.
Michigan should have few problems filling Kenny Allen’s role with two highly ranked freshmen. Kicker Quinn Nordin was the top-rated high school player at his position in 2015 and redshirted his first year on campus. The punting job should go to freshman Brad Robbins, also the best at his position coming out of high school.
The return positions should be in good hands as well as sophomore receiver Eddie McDoom should step into the punt return role after showing how explosive he could be on sweeps last season and sophomore corner David Long will be the primary kick returner where he can show off his speed.
Michigan should be very good on special teams if these youngsters can step up to the plate. The Wolverines also blocked seven kicks in 2016.
4. Wisconsin Badgers
A lot of Wisconsin’s special teams success rests on the health of the balky back of kicker Rafael Gaglianone who missed 10 games in 2016. Alex Endicott who replaced Gaglianone and performed well has graduated leaving Zack Hinze the back-up option to the hefty kicker. When healthy, Gaglianone is one of the best in the conference. He has made 44-of-57 field goals (77.2%).
Punter Anthony Lotti was average at best last season with a 37.7 yard average per punt, but he should be improved heading into his sophomore year.
The Badgers are pretty set at the return position as Jazz Peavy gives them an explosive return man on punt returns and sophomore A.J. Taylor will be the primary returner on kickoffs.
5. Rutgers Scarlet Knights
There are two reasons Rutgers is on this list. First, Janarion Grant is the best return man (eight career kick or punt returns for touchdowns) in the conference and has the knack to find the end zone on returns at the game’s most important moments. Second, Rutgers blocks a lot of kicks. Since 2011 the Scarlet Knights have blocked 30 kicks.
Outside of those two aspects of special teams, Rutgers has a lot to figure out.
Punter Michael Cintron punted a school-record 95 times, but had just a 37.9-yard average and needs to improve that number if he ends up punting anywhere close to the 95 times he did in 2016. Chris Ash has brought in some reinforcements to compete for the starting job as they added Ryan Anderson who earned Division III All-American honors a season ago.
David Bonagura also returns as the Scarlet Knights kicker, but he needs to improve greatly as he hit only 10-of-14 field goal attempts with a long of only 41 yards. Rutgers will need as many points as possible to compete in 2017 and having a kicker with a short range is not going to help.