By the way, every time I actually try to calculate how many days there are until football season starts, I get confused. Should I be counting down to gameday, or to the day before gameday? And which one of those two am I already doing? And what about the fact that the game starts at 6 PM? Point is, I really friggin suck at math. Even addition and subtraction.
Days Left Til Football Season: 16
One Less Day Til Football Season, Post 8: Special Teams
Who did it last year?: Last year's special teams strategy (as designed by special teams coach Pat Fitzgerald) was, like, "hey, have you seen this guy Stefan Demos kick stuff with his legs and feet? He's good at it! We should have him do it a lot!" So he did. Demos kicked all 25 of NU's field goals, 36 of 37 extra points, all 53 of our punts, and 69 out of 70 of our kickoffs. Do the math. That's 183 times in 12 games where Stefan Demos had to kick his leg really hard at something. I'm not sure if legs get really tired after kicking things a lot - judging from soccer, nah - but, damn. That's a lot of kicking stuff. I mean, if you think about it, every Northwestern possession - except those that ended in turnovers - featured either one or two kicks by Demos - one if they punted or scored and went for a two-point conversion, two if they scored and needed an extra point and then a kickoff. That's a lot of damn work. For the most part, he was a good kicker: he started out fine, hitting his first nine field goals of the year, and 14-of-16, with the two misses being blocks. He'd hit two game-winning field goals - against Eastern Michigan as time expired from 49 yards, and against Indiana with less than a minute to go from a tough angle. But as the year wore on, he had two horrific games kicking: against Illinois - not having missed a non-blocked field goal all year - he went 0/3, missing from 47, 50, and, surprisingly, 31. It was a sign of things to come: against Auburn, his poor kicking nearly cost the team the game in regulation, then did cost them the game in overtime: he went 0/2 in regulation, missing a potential game-winner, and missed an extra point that forced NU to go for two in the game's closing minutes. And in overtime, he clanged an additional kick off the upright that doesn't get reflected in his official statsheet because there was a penalty on the play. I'm recounting all this to make the point that for the most part, Demos was a great kicker - just two big collapses - one of them very costly.
As a punter, he was just bad. After averaging a passable 40.1 and 39 yards-per-punt in his first two years, when he was given placekicking and kickoff duties as well last year, his punting work truly suffered, dropping to 35-yards per punt, with his longest punt of the whole year a measly 47 yards. His rugby-style punting has never been popular among the NU fanbase - it rarely goes over 40 yards, and caused only one accidental turnover by the other team.
Who's got next?: Demos is still the kicker - his injury suffered in the Outback Bowl wasn't serious enough to put him out for this year - but Brandon Williams, who walked on to the team midway through last season, will become NU's punter. He has no game experience, but in spring game warmups, I watched him punt, and, well, he doesn't rugby-style the ball much and he can kick it reasonably far. I also wouldn't be surprised to see somebody else take over kickoff duties: NU has two other kickers on roster: Steve Flaherty and Jeff Budzien, and, in the interest of lessening Demos' role and letting him focus on placekicking, if I were coach, I'd have one of these two take a role as kickoff specialist. Flaherty kicked one last year, and it was a touchback, while Demos did that 12 times in 69 tries, and managed to kick it out of bounds seven times, so, I like my ratios here.
Is that an improvement?: I haven't seen Brandon Williams kick in any game situation, but I already know this is an improvement. Giving Demos three jobs last year was too much for one man to handle. Not that he's not a good kicker: he's not in line to be a potential all-Big Ten kicker for nothing. It's just preposterous to expect one guy to do three very different things and be as good as he can be at all of them. Demos was never a great punter, but became worse last year, and I feel his kicking game suffered too. This year, he'll be focused, Williams will be focused - and probably slightly better - as a punter, and if we get a kickoff specialist, they'll probably improve at that as the year goes on as well, and give them some game experience to make them more comfortable performing in real action. After all, we all get the sense that while kicking is tough, there's a freakish amount of mental fortitude required to stay focused with such a thin line between being a hero and a goat. Give one man one job, and things will improve.