It's hard to say goodbye. But that's what we'll have to do right now, as this series comes to a close. I've covered every single position on the team, except, of course, for holder and long snapper. For those two positions, you'll just have to guess/live in constant fear because I haven't dropped in to tell you who our holder and long snapper are. (Or you could just look on the Northwestern website.)
Days Left Til Football: 11. (The last one.)
One Less Day Til Football Season, Post 10: Returns and Such
Who did it last year: For the the second straight season last year, NU failed to score off of any returns. It's not really surprising: the Wildcats had a hodgepodge crew of return men that seemed to have enough issues with the little things - like catching the ball - that most of the time, a fair catch was more than acceptable. I remember NU getting out past the 40 on a kick return twice, although I'm sure I'm forgetting some. Running back kicks was primarily Stephen Simmons, who quite frankly, wasn't that bad - he averaged 25.3 yards per return - but didn't have a knack for breaking through into the second level of coverage - he was content to just kind of sprint out as far as he could most of the time, which works for him, because he's quick but doesn't have much in the way of moves. When he was injured, Jeravin Matthews ran the ball back with very questionable results - he averaged only 17 yards per return and had some notable fumbles, including one that made Pat Fitzgerald run out all the way to midfield against Michigan State explicitly to yell at him. Andrew Brewer also went deep on occasion, but only had seven returns. Jacob Schmidt also returned one kick, but let's not do that.
As for punts, Andrew Brewer and Brendan Smith were the primary guys with Hunter Bates filling in on occasion, and neither ever made it more than 16 yards on a return. Combined, the punt return crew averaged a measly 5.42 yards per return. That's awful.
Who's got next?: For kick returns, it appears that Stephen Simmons is the guy. He won't be contributing much of anything to the running game, and has looked really decent as a returner, so I see no reason why he shouldn't be the guy in charge of returning the ball. Jacob Schmidt was listed as second on the spring depth chart, but I don't see that lasting into the season: there's no reason to have your slowest running back be your returner. Jeravin Matthews might not have handled the job well last year, but he had looked good as a returner as a freshman - I see no reason why he shouldn't get a shot at being the second guy deep, provided he can hold onto a football. (Which is a big if.)
With punting, Brewer and Smith graduate, and Bates wasn't special last year. All signs turn to Venric Mark, a tiny speedster freshman wideout who everyone around the team seems to indicate will be NU's punt - and maybe even kick - returner. He's likely one of the faster people on the team, and was a return man in high school. Jordan Mabin was listed as the No. 1 guy on the spring depth chart, but that list didn't include true freshmen like Mark - expect him to be running kicks back against Vandy.
Is that an improvement?: Gotta be, huh? We've only heard great stuff about Venric, so, I genuinely believe that he'll be the best punt returner NU has seen since I got into Evanston. Brendan Smith had one good return in 2008 against Illinois, and when I combined that with his pick six against Minnesota, I figured he was good at returning stuff - but he and Brewer combined to not do anything last year, so anything's an improvement. I think Simmons has the talent to do this job and will do a better job getting us in good field position than he did last year if we make him focus on running it back instead of playing running back. This is definitely going to be an improved facet of NU's game - I expect at least one score out of this squad in 2010.