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Where NU Special Teams Regressed in 2013

Northwestern's offense took most of the blame for the Wildcats' disappointing 2013 season, and perhaps rightfully so. NU couldn't score touchdowns when it reached the redzone and it sputtered when its two quarterbacks and running back Venric Mark were injured. However, hidden behind the #Budzien4Groza campaign, the Wildcats' special teams also played a part in the disappointing 5-7 record. The unit regressed, ranking fourth in Football Outsiders' FEI ratings in 2012 and 74th in 2013.

After we learned that Mark would not be part of the return team, it was almost a given. But now that the season is over, Football Outsiders' ratings provide an interesting look at which part of NU's special teams saw the biggest declines.

Year STE STE

Rk

FGE FGE

Rk

PRE

 

PRE

Rk

KRE KRE

Rk

PE PE

Rk

KE KE

Rk

OFGE OFGE

Rk

2012  2.895  4  .650 4 .151 8 -.185 80 -.222 18 -.221 22 .151

73

2013 -.180 74 .460 20 -.083 66 -.176 75 .140 114 -.205 39 .109 68

You can go to Football Outsiders to get full explanations for all of these terms, but they're pretty self-explanatory. STE is special teams efficiency, FGE is field goal efficiency, PRE is punt return efficiency, KRE is kick return efficiency, PE is punt efficiency, KE is kickoff efficiency and OFGE is opponent field goal efficiency. Good? Good.

With Mark out, punt return efficiency figured to take a hit in 2013. Mark is one of the premier punt returners in the nation, and the Wildcats' punt return team is far better with him on the field. NU had a much higher scoring value per punt return in 2012 relative to 2013, and even in the traditional stats, that showed. Mark returned 15 punts in 2012 and ranked second in the nation with an average of 18.67 yards per return. This year's punt returner, Tony Jones, only returned three punts in the first nine games of the season. He warmed up to the idea of returning them, finishing with nine on the year, but only averaged 7.11 yards per return. That's part of the reason NU ranked 18th in FO's field position advantage in 2012, but 80th in 2013.

But kick returns are a different story. NU's kick return efficiency actually improved — albeit slightly, and still below average — in 2013. Mark's kick returns averaged 19.81 yards in 2012, good for 100th in the nation. Matt Harris, 2013's returner, ranked 54th with an average of 23.05 yards per return.

Back to the other side of the ball, NU's kickoff efficiency regressed slightly in 2013, which makes sense given that 2012's kickoff man, Steve Flaherty, had a stronger leg than 2013 kickoff man Jeff Budzien. As recruits from the Wildcats' highly-rated classes start to see the field, the coverage units should improve, since better athletes will presumably be on the field. However, the big concern in 2013 was punting efficiency. NU's punting efficiency ranked 18th in 2012, but 114th in 2013. The punting situation gained a lot of attention at the end of the year when Brandon Williams' shanked punt against Michigan got him pulled in favor of Chris Gradone. But it was a problem all year and must be better in 2014.

So what about 2014? The punt return game should benefit tremendously from the return of Mark, but the punting game has to be better, and that will likely fall on Gradone. The kicking game will be interesting. It's going to be tough for the new kicker to match Budzien's efficiency on field goals, and although Budzien had just an average leg at best, NU's kickoff efficiency wasn't bad in 2013. That's a big wildcard heading into 2014. While Mark will have his punt return job back when he's ready, it will be interesting to see who returns kicks. Harris was actually a better returner, so he may win the job over Mark.

But there will be plenty of time to debate starters this offseason. No matter who is starting, NU's special teams have to go back to being, well, special in 2014. If not, special teams struggles could play a part in another disappointing season.