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Around the Big Ten: Special Teams

Now that summer has nearly arrived, we’re inching closer and closer to football. This post marks the start of our newest series: a look at how each of the Wildcats’ units stands put up against other units in the Big Ten. Next up is special teams.

Conference overview

Readers of this site eagerly glanced at this volume of our Around the Big Ten feature and casually presumed the satisfaction of a coronation. It’s completely understandable, really. Northwestern’s special teams were close to awesome last season, from Jeff Budzien to Venric Mark on down. As such, the Wildcats will rank near (or at) the top of this list, but you’ll need to keep reading to find out their exact placement. Meanwhile, there are some other formidable units around the conference, and many of them will challenge the Wildcats in the upper echelon of special teams play this season.

Teams to watch (NU excluded)

Michigan – If not for punter Will Hagerup's season-long suspension, Michigan might have the most effective kicking-punting duo in this entire league. It still has Brendan Gibbons, who converted 16 of 18 field goal attempts last season, which means the existential fourth-down, punt/go-for-it debate will offer simple answers near the opponent's end zone. at A dash of sophomore speedster Dennis Norfleet, to say nothing of receiver Jeremy Gallon's big-play skills, rounds out Michigan’s group with the game-breaking unpredictability few teams around this league can readily match. With the exception of their potentially NFL-bound punter, the Wolverines have everything you want in a special teams unit.

Michigan State – Not every particular unit you need to be watching this season owes to that unit’s quality or predicted success. Some units are fun to watch simply because we don’t know what to expect. Michigan State satisfies that criteria doubly: return responsibilities are likely to be finalized in training camp, and the Spartans will likewise need to find someone (probably Kevin Muma) to recover the Big Ten-leading 23 field goals departed kicker Dan Conroy converted last season. There is enough quality depth available to ensure neither spot sinks too far, and punter Mike Sadler, one of the Big Ten's best, will make up for any ground lost in the kicking and/or return games.

Ohio State – The best punt return man in the Big Ten last season by Wildcats’ fans reckoning was Mark – and there’s a boatload of evidence to suggest you’re totally on point. But before you dig yourselves in, allow me to weigh in with an important piece of information. Ohio State’s Corey Brown, not Mark, led the Big Ten in average yards per return (12.3) last season and ran back two punts for touchdowns. I’d side with Mark, but an argument for Brown wouldn’t fall on deaf ears. I don’t suspect the Buckeyes will be kicking many field goals this season – a Braxton Miller-led offense, in Urban Meyer’s trademark second-year blossoming, is a dangerous prospect against some of the defenses you see around this league – but Drew Basil should improve in his senior season.

Surprise unit 

Purdue – If Akeem Hunt increases his rushing workload this season – a reasonable expectation, given his place on the depth chart and the competitors on hand – his ability to contribute in the return game may be slashed so as to preserve his speed and explosiveness for the offensive side of the ball. But I think we’d all very much enjoy watching Hunt return kicks this season. He ripped off four scores of more than 50 yards last season, including the kick he ran back from his own end zone against Ohio State, and new coach Darrell Hazell would be robbing himself of a valuable special teams trump card by boxing Hunt into just one phase of the game.

Where does NU fit in?

The most explosive return man in college football, one of its most accurate kickers, and a punter fresh off his best season yet are the three main assets Northwestern returns to fill out this year’s special teams group. This information should lead to an easy conclusion. Northwestern should have the best special teams in the Big Ten, right? What could possibly prevent them from standing atop these rankings? What sort of buzzkilling-blockhead writing for a Northwestern site would push the Wildcats from their rightful perch? Guilty as charged. I’m ranking Northwestern No. 2 – and my reason for doing so probably won’t temper your no doubt already-indignant reaction to this section.

I expect Mark to regress, plain and simple, to not rip holes in opposing coverage units every time he touches the ball, or star weekly on youtube highlight compilations, or put countless gunners on ice skates with mind-blowing jukes and side-stepping pirouettes. That’s not an unreasonable prediction. It’s like, science, bro – or merely the realization that, as is often the case with stunning breakout seasons in any sport, natural statistical regression tends to strike back the following year. I also expect Budzien to miss a few field goals this season, a minor lapse from his near-perfection last season. The combination of Budzien and Mark moving slightly backwards, rather than replicating last season’s special teams work, pushes the Wildcats down one spot.

Way too early All-Big Ten team

KR -- Jordan Cotton, Iowa

PR -- Venric Mark, Northwestern

PK -- Brendan Gibbons, Michigan

P -- Mike Sadler, Michigan State

Way too early Power Rankings

1. Ohio State, 2. Northwestern, 3. Michigan, 4. Michigan State, 5. Purdue, 6. Iowa, 7. Nebraska, 8. Wisconsin, 9. Indiana, 10. Illinois, 11. Penn State, 12. Minnesota