by Chris Johnson (@ChrisDJohnsonn)
Jeff Budzien, Junior. PK.
The good news is Budzien led all Big Ten kickers with his 50-for-50 mark on extra point attempts. But coach Fitzgerald was reluctant to use him during pivotal moments of important games. The result: Budzien attempted only 10 field goals last season, making just six of them. NU’s 60 percent field goal percentage ranked last in the conference.
Budzien showed signs of improvement throughout the spring, which should make Fitzgerald more comfortable taking the offense off the field on fourth downs. The Wildcats need all the points they can get this season, so Budzien will need to be on his game.
Steve Flaherty, Senior. Kickoffs.
NU’s touchback percentage (9.09) ranked 11th amongst Big Ten teams last season, a metric that Flaherty must improve on to reduce the possibility of big returns and good field position for opponents. Games are so often won and lost on special teams, and a better overall year from Flaherty will help the Wildcats win that phase of the game.
Brandon Williams, Junior. P.
In his second year as the starter, Williams ranked sixth in the Big Ten last season with his 40.8-yd punting average. Both the strength and placement of his punts increased towards the end of the season, and he even threw in a few rugby style punts, including a 65-yarder at Army.
His improved directional punting allowed the cover team to minimize returns and snuff out big plays. Budzien also forced more fair catches later in the year. He should only improve in his third season as the starter, and might well be on his way to developing into one of the Big Ten’s better all around punters.
Venric Mark, Junior. KR/PR.
Mark was named to the Johnny “The Jet” Rodgers Return Specialist Award watch list this spring, which annually recognizes the nation’s best kick/punt returner. He compiled 915 yards on kick returns and 217 on punt returns last season, and his 22.9-yard kick return average ranked eighth amongst eligible Big Ten return men last season.
He may be the Wildcats’ fastest player and he’s certainly their most explosive one, a home run threat every time he touches the ball in space. Mark’s returns steadily improved later in the season, and perhaps his best performance of the season came in the Meineke Car Care Bowl, when he capped his 147-return yard performance with a 47-yard punt return.
In this third season as the full-time starter, Mark has all-conference potential. He’s an electrifying talent, the type of player that can shift a game’s momentum entirely with one big play. Giving Colter and the offense good field position will be key for NU’s offensive attack.
Arthur Omilian, RS Freshman. PK.
Chris Gradone, RS Freshman. P.
C.J. Bryant, Sophomore. KR/PR.
Matt Micucci, PK/P. 5-11, 180—Lake Zurich (IL).
Too many times last season, the Wildcats were forced to go for it on fourth down, with the fear that Budzien wouldn’t convert on field goals of more than 35-40 yards. He needs to prove that he can convert in crucial situations, which will minimize turnover on downs and result in more points.
Flaherty’s short kicks and lack of touchbacks leaves little room for error against speedy, explosive return men from other teams. The Wildcats ranked eighth in the conference in kick return coverage, and that will only improve if—more times than not—the opponent can’t run the ball out of his own end zone.
Despite the lack of a strong kicking game, the Wildcats boast one of the conference’s most electrifying return men, and he could be on the verge of a breakout year. Mark promises to be a nuisance for any team that tries to stop him, and his big returns will give NU a short field to work with, the results being more play-calling flexibility and quicker scores.
If the kicking game improves—it looked better in throughout the spring—and Mark continues to make strides, special teams as a whole will be much better than last season.