Opponent Unit Rankings: Special Teams

Image: Eleven Warriors

Image: Eleven Warriors

Written by Sammy Jacobs (@Hoosier_Huddle)

2019 Opposing Special Teams Rankings

Welcome back to our opponent unit ranking series. Today we will are ranking the special teams units for each of the Indiana Hoosiers’ opponents during the 2019 regular season. We will consider each phase of special teams (kicking, punting, punt return and coverage and kickoff return and coverage).

Since we don’t rank IU in this, I will tell you where I would put them. The Hoosiers would be right, smack in the middle of this ranking. Kicker Logan Justus is very solid and Charles Campbell could be used as a capable kicker as well. Haydon Whitehead is a really good punter as well. The questions for IU come in the return and coverage games. Can they find a replacement for J-Shun Harris who was an All-Big Ten punt returner? Will someone breathe life into the kickoff return unit? Finally, can they fix whatever plagued them late in the year on kickoff coverage?

With that here is our list:

1. Ohio State

The Buckeyes return Phil Steele pre-season All-Big Ten (first team) punter Drue Chrisman and third team All-Big Ten kicker Blake Haubell in 2019. Chrisman averaged a league best 41.8 net yard per punt average and pinned opponents inside the 20-yard line 29 times while forcing 25 fair catches on 61 punts last season.

Haubell, a junior, was a perfect 37-of-37 on extra points and 10-of-13 on field goals with a long of 47 yards after taking over the kicking duties after Sean Nuernberger was lost for the year with a groin injury.

Wide receiver K.J. Hill has breakaway speed and should be the Buckeyes number one receiver, but he could keep his spot as punt returner after totaling 76 yards on 14 returns in 2018. Speedster Demario McCall will take over the kickoff duties from Johnnie Dixon. McCall averaged 19.5 yards per return last season as he split time with Dixon.

Ohio State’s kickoff coverage unit is pretty darn good as well as they have used the sky kick to pin opponents in the corner and let their team speed take over. Last season the Buckeyes only allowed one return of more than 30 yards.

2. Michigan

The Wolverines come in at number two on the list as they have an All-Big Ten punt returner in Donovan Peoples-Jones, punter in Will Hart, and long snapper with Camaron Cheeseman. Oh, and Quinn Nordin is a pretty good kicker to have returning as well after hitting 11-of-16 field goals in 2018 after making 19-of-24 in 2017. Indiana fans may remember Michigan’s back-up kicker Jake Moody after he sank the Hoosier upset bid with six field goals in their 31-20 win in November.

Peoples-Jones may be the best punt returner in the conference. He averaged 10 yards a return including a touchdown. He is fast and tough to take down. Corner Ambry Thomas provides an explosive kick returner as he averaged a solid 21.7 yards per return including a 99-yard touchdown return.

Hart was stellar as he averaged 47 yards per punt, however he usually out kicked his coverage and gave opponents a chance to return punts. He only had five fair caught punts on 43 attempts and his net average was just 37.6 yards. He also had a punt blocked and only pinned opponents inside the 20-yard line 15 times.

3. Michigan State

The Spartans are usually very good on special teams and 2019 won’t be very different. All-Big Ten kicker Matt Coghlin is back after connecting on 18-of-22 field goals (long of 49) in 2018. The Spartans get their punter, Jake Hartbarger, back after an injury wiped out his fifth season. He was averaging nearly 50 yards per punt before being injured. If he is healthy, Hartbarger is one of the best in the conference.

Brandon Sowards was serviceable as a punt return averaging 7.4 yards per return and Connor Heyward gave the offense some help as a kick return with a 22.1 yard per return average as well.

The Spartans can be burned on kick return as they let up a couple returns over 30 yards, but don’t count on getting the big return against them.

4. Penn State

The Nittany Lions used their special teams to save them against Indiana a year ago and once again this unit can make or break a game for Penn State. Outside of punt returner DeAndre Thompkins, everyone is back. Even with that, the Nittany Lions have enough athletes to replace Thompkins.

KJ Hamler is a game changer at kick returner as he totaled 523 yards on 20 returns as a true freshman, good for 39th best nationally. He’ll be stronger and faster as a sophomore.

Punter Blake Gillikin has a strong leg and pinned 20 punts inside the opponents 20-yard line, but struggled with forcing fair catches, just 13, and had two punts blocked. These struggles are a reason why his net average was just 37.4 yards per punt.

Sophomore place kicker Jake Pinegar is coming off an outstanding true freshman season as he hit 16-of-24 field goals. While he did struggle with accuracy, six of those eight misses were from 40 to 49 yards out. He did knock in 53-of-55 extra points as well.

5. Nebraska

The Hoosiers will get a look at Nebraska for the first time since the 2016 season and they must pay attention to the Huskers’ special teams unit. The Huskers have one of the better punt returners in the league with JD Spielman, who averaged a whopping 17.3 yards per return. Teams figured it out and kicked away from him as he only had six attempts.

Kicker Barret Pickering is looking to follow up a 14-for-18 freshman season, while punter Isaac Armstrong filled in well for Caleb Lightbourn as he averaged 43.6 yards per punt. The Huskers will need more production out of their kick return unit as Maurice Washington only averaged 15.7 yards per return.

6. Rutgers

Usually bad teams don’t have really good special teams units, but Rutgers is an exception. The Scarlet Knight specialty is the blocked kick. They rank first in the nation since 2009 with 52, including three last season.

Rutgers does other things well too. Kicker Justin Davidovich was 9-of-11 on field goals including three from 40 yards and beyond while being a perfect 17-of-17 on extra points. The offense needs to get him more opportunities.

Punter Adam Korsak was solid as a freshman netting an average of 40.1 yards per punt and pinning opponents inside their own 20-yard line 23 times and forcing 21 fair catches.

Rutgers has some weapons in the return game as they try and get running backs Isaih Pacheco and Raheem Blackshear more touches. Both of them averaged over 18.4 yards per return. Punt returner Avery Young is serviceable, but needs to find more room.

7. Maryland

Maryland has to find a replacement for punter Wade Lees who pinned opponents inside the 20-yard line 28 times and forced 27 fair catches. Redshirt freshman Bentley Faulkner is in line to replace him.

The Terrapins will also be looking for a punt returner, which shouldn’t be a problem with their loaded backfield.

The two returnees are pretty darn good as well. Kicker Joseph Petrino was 12-of-14 on field goals and 40-of-41 on extra points as a freshman. Junior Javon Leake is a homerun threat at kick returner. He averaged 24.1 yards per return including a 97-yard touchdown return.  

8. Northwestern

The Wildcats struggled kicking field goals as kicker Charlie Kuhbander only connected on 5-of-9 field goals. They have to replace punter Jake Collins, the frontrunner for that job is Cody Gronewood. Kyric McGowan is back at kick returner after averaging 24.1 yards per return and punt returner Riley Lees was able to average 5.4 yards per return. If they can find a serviceable punter and improve the place kicking, number eight may be a low ranking for Northwestern.

9. Purdue

The Boilermakers have to replace both their place kicker and their punter. JD Dellinger will be back in as kicker after redshirting last season. He is 20-of-28 on fields in his career and should fill in just fine. Freshman Brooks Cormier is a freshman who should win the punting job. The Boilermakers return game is going to be taken care of by Rondale Moore, who needs the ball in his hands as much as possible.

10. Connecticut

UConn will have a kicker with minimum experience in Clayton Harris who hit his only field goal attempt last year in addition to going 5-of-6 on extra points. Punter Luke Magliozzi is another Australian punter. His net average was 38.8 yards and pinned opponents inside the 20-yard line 19 times. Departed punt returner Kyle Buss is replaceable as the Huskies have plenty of skill position players returning. Kick returning duties will were split last year between Keylon Dixon (19.7 yard per return) and Tyler Coyle (22.1 YPR).

11. Ball State

The Cardinals lose a solid kicker in Morgan Hagee, but will replace him with senior Ryan Rimmler who was the kickoff specialist last year. Punter Patrick LeCorre is back after netting just 35.1 yards per punt. Malik Dunner is back to return kicks and he can be dangerous. Ball State has to replace Corey Lacanaria as the punt returner.

12. Eastern Illinois

The Panthers have to replace their kicker, with candidates Josh Delgado and Stone Galloway fighting for the job. The punting job is wide open as well. Kick returner is back after averaging 23.8 yards a return, including a touchdown. Mark Williams will return punts. Last season he returned one punt for 21 yards.