Written by Sammy Jacobs (@Hoosier_Huddle)
Welcome to the second annual Top Five series where the Hoosier Huddle writers will rank and breakdown the top five Indiana opponents every position group on the field (so we are only ranking the units whose teams are IU opponents in 2016). We begin the 2016 Top Five series with special teams units.
1. Nebraska Cornhuskers
An unfamiliar Hoosier opponent occupies the top of this list as they sport the best all-round special teams unit. The Huskers return place kicker Drew Brown who connected on 21-of-27 field goals and 44-of-46 extra points as a sophomore in 2015. Brown also handles kickoffs for Nebraska and put 40.51% of his kickoffs in the end zone for touchbacks.
Nebraska also has one of the best punters in the conference is Sam Foltz, who averaged 44.23 yards per kick in 2015 on his way to winning the Eddleman-Fields Big Ten Punter of the Year Award and should continue that success into his senior season. Do not be surprised if Foltz’s name is littered on some preseason all-conference lists as well as the Ray Guy Award Watch List.
What sets the Huskers apart from the rest of the field is their quality kick and punt returners. Nebraska returns both their primary kick returner in Stanley Morgan Jr. (23.1 yards per return) and their best punt returner in Jordan Westercamp (10.2 yards per return). In addition the Huskers will welcome back dynamic receiver De’Money Pierson-El from a season ending injury, but it is unknown whether or not they will risk another injury putting him back for kicks. As a freshman in 2014 Pierson-El returned three punts for scores while averaging 17.5 yards per return. When healthy he is the best punt returner in the conference.
2. Ohio State Buckeyes
The Buckeyes lose primary place kicker Jack Willoughby (7-of-11 FG’s and 45-of-45 PATs) and explosive return man Jalen Marshall, but the cupboard is hardly bare. Willoughby lost field goal duty to Sam Nuerenburger, who finished hitting three of his four field goal attempts after taking the job from Willoughby. Nuerenburger looks to stabilize a struggling field goal unit and take over kickoff duty. The punt game, however, is in great shape as senior Cam Johnston returns for his senior season. Johnston finished second in the Big Ten averaging 43.95 yards per punt, and should be at or near the top once again as he will likely be on the Ray Guy Award Watch List.
Hoosier fans know the name Jalin Marshall well, as he basically single handedly beat IU in 2014. Marshall left for the NFL early (undrafted) and should be replaced in the punt return game by Dontre Wilson, who when he was recruited reminded people of Percy Harvin. Wilson’s career has been underwhelming, but he does the ability and athleticism to be a game breaker in the return game. Running back Curtis Samuel will likely be back as the primary kick returner after averaging 23 yards per return in 2015. For as many great athletes Urban Meyer and the Buckeye staff bring in, it is surprising their return game isn’t better.
3. Michigan State
Mark Dantonio’s Spartan teams usually have excellent specialists and this year shouldn’t be any different if they can find some more consistency. Kicker Michael Geiger, of field goal celebration lore, returns for his senior year after hitting just 62.3% of his field goals, but knocked home 51-of-53 extra points. If Michigan State is going to ease the post-Connor Cook transition, Geiger will have to hit more that 63% of his field goal attempts. Geiger only handled two kick offs last season and one of them landed out of bounds. Kickoff duty was mainly handled by senior-to-be Kevin Cronin who only had 30.26% of his 76 kickoffs go back for touchbacks (second worst in the Big Ten), while kicking two out of bounds.
Despite the inconsistencies kicking, Michigan State’s biggest weakness may be in the punt game, where they ranked 121st in punt coverage and game up two scores, however they did come up with the biggest and most bizarre play of their season when Jalen Watts-Jackson took a botched Michigan punt snap back for the game winning score and gave the internet the “Surrender Cobra”. The Spartans do return punter sophomore Jake Hartbarger, who ranked fourth in the Big Ten in punting average (42.7 yards).
The return game for the Spartans should be strong as senior wide out R.J. Shelton and junior running back Drake Martinez both project to be the primary kick and punt returners respectively. Shelton averaged 21.4 yards per return in 2015.
4. Penn State Nittany Lions
When Joey Julius trots out to kick the ball for Penn State, one may wonder if that is a lineman that is attempting field goals. Julius, at 5’10” 259 pounds doesn’t fit your stereotypical wiry kicker profile, but he was terrific as a freshman. Julius actually led the conference in field goal percentage at 83.3 percent, but only attempted 12 field goals as he split time with Tyler Davis who was a perfect eight for eight. Julius did struggle on extra points though as he missed four of them (20-of-24). His job, which could be in jeopardy, becomes much more important as the Lions are breaking in a new offensive coordinator and quarterback and could be desperate for points. Julius is also a liability on kickoffs as he put five of them out of bounds while only hitting 41.51% of them for touchbacks. Julius will have to stave off advances from Tyler and incoming freshman Alex Barbir.
Penn State’s punting is what is keeping them from being higher on this list. Punter Daniel Pasquariello, a junior, is back after a lackluster sophomore season where he averaged just 39.9 yards per punt and should be looking over his shoulder as the James Franklin signed punter Blake Gillikin as part of his 2016 recruiting class.
The return game is what is keeping the Lions on this list at No. 4 as they return a quality punt returner in DeAndre Thompkins (7.74 yards a return) and sophomore defensive back Koa Farmer who averaged 22.5 yards per kick return. An uptick in the return game could kick start an offense that has a bunch of questions outside of Saquon Barkley.
Northwestern cracks this list due to their outstanding return game, and not because of their kicking and punting. The Wildcats have one of the best return men in the Big Ten in Soloman Vault, who returned two kicks for touchdowns and led the conference with 26.28 yards per return. If opponents decide to kick away from Vault, sophomore Jelani Roberts or freshman John Moten IV should give the Wildcats a quality secondary returner. Senior Matthew Harris should be handling the punt returns, replacing the departed Miles Shuler. Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald says Harris has “got a chance to be one of the best we’ve ever had in all phases.”
The Wildcat kicking game needs improvement, but hopes are high that senior kicker Jack Mitchell can turn it around after connecting on just 18-of-27 field goals as a junior. The punt game ranked last in the conference in 2015 as punter Hunter Niswander averaged a paltry 37.96 yards per kick. However, the Wildcats were third nationally in punt coverage giving up just 1.94 yards per return.