Returning starters: KR Matt Harris (So.), KR Venric Mark (Sr.), KR Stephen Buckley (So.), PR Tony Jones (Sr.)
Others returning: K/P Hunter Niswander (RS Fr.), P Chris Gradone (Jr.), P/PK Matt Micucci (So.), PK Jack Mitchell (So.), PK Arthur Omilian (Jr.)
Incoming Recruits: None
Projected Depth Chart:
Kicker: Hunter Niswander, Jack Mitchell
Punter: Chris Gradone
Punt Returner: Venric Mark
Kick Returner: Venric Mark OR Matthew Harris
Explaining the Depth Chart:
There are going to be a lot of new faces on Northwestern’s special teams depth chart this year, especially in the kicking game. Hunter Niswander seems like the most likely choice to replace Jeff Budzien, while Chris Gradone is the obvious choice to step in for Brandon Williams, since Gradone replaced Williams in a couple games at the end of last year.
The return game should get a boost. It was pretty clear from last season that Tony Jones absolutely hates to return punts. Venric Mark is one of the nation’s best punt returners, and having him back will be a major upgrade. Everyone will be excited to have Mark back for kickoffs too, though Matthew Harris has actually been a marginally better kick returner. I know, Fitz fans, #StatsAreForLosers, but generally people with better statistics also perform better on the field, and I think there’s a decent chance the coaches will see that they can limit Mark’s injury risk and still have a solid returner by featuring Harris on kickoffs instead.
Stock Up: The coverage units
Full disclosure: We don’t get to see the specialists practice, so it’s tough for us to be able to tell who is gaining and losing ground, aside from what the coaches tell us. One thing that should improve is kickoff coverage. Better recruiting typically leads to better athletes, which typically leads to better coverage units. Given how NU’s recruiting has taken off, the coverage units should continue to improve.
Stock Down: ???
Again, we can’t watch the specialists practice, so it’s not fair for us to make any judgements here.
Position Battle: Kicker
The only place there seems to be a major position battle is at kicker, between Hunter Niswander and Jack Mitchell. While Niswander is considered by most people to be the next man in, Mitchell could certainly make a run. We’ll get a better idea in fall camp.
Biggest Summer Question: What will get better and what will get worse?
Given who was lost and who is coming back, I expect Northwestern’s special teams to be all over the map in 2014. Sometimes it will be really good, and sometimes it will be really bad. That’s how it goes when you have so much inexperience. Let’s take a look at what should improve and what could decline:
Improve: It’s pretty clear that the punt return game will improve, while the kick return game should be just fine. With Mark returning, that’s expected.
Decline: It’s going to be tough for either Niswander or Mitchell to live up to Jeff Budzien’s legacy in year one. In fact, does anybody remember Budzien’s 2011 season? He went six-for-10.
Questions: Punter will be a major question mark, as the lack of punting efficiency really hurt NU’s chances to win in a couple games last year. For NU to be successful, Gradone has to be better than Williams was last year.
It’s hard to know what to make of this mix. Can the freshmen step up? Can Gradone improve NU’s standing in the field position battle? Those are the questions that need answering this summer.