We finished off our "This Year vs. Last Year" series with a roundup of the entire series yesterday, when a commenter alerted us that we forgot to do the special teams. So, without further ado, here's the actual end of that series: the special teams.
Key Losses: K Steve Flaherty
Returning Starters: K Jeff Budzien, P Brandon Williams, PR/KR Venric Mark, KR Tony Jones
Other Key Returners: None (But Hunter Niswander is a newcomer to watch)
Why 2012 Was Better: Few people could have expected the Northwestern special teams to be as good as they were in 2012. Venric Mark and Tony Jones figured to make a dynamic duo in the kick return game — Mark has always starred as a returner — but there wasn't much faith in the kicking game to be too great after Jeff Budzien went 6-for-10 in 2011. However, Budzien broke out with an incredible 19-for-20 season, and he has now made all 101 PATs attempted in his career.
In no way do we want to discredit what Budzien did — he was clearly deserving of first team All-Big Ten honors — but the one knock on his game was his lack of range. His only miss was his one attempt from 50+ yards. Surely, he could have made a 50+ yarder if Pat Fitzgerald had him kick more of them, but there's a reason he didn't. Budzien was extremely accurate last year, but he's never been a particularly powerful kicker. That's why he never handled kickoffs, and now with Steve Flaherty gone, he might need to.
Why 2013 Will Be Better: The punt and kick return units should be just as good this year as they were last year, since the unit will likely consist of the same personnel. As far as coverage teams go — they were excellent in 2012 — it's tough to tell how they'll be until the season gets under way. But heading into the season, the biggest questions are whether Budzien can be as effective again in 2013 and who NU uses to replace Flaherty. It may be tough for Budzien to maintain the same level of accuracy in 2013, but he's had a whole offseason to improve his range, so that could certainly be a plus. It could hurt to lose Flaherty, but he never had a particularly strong leg, so if freshman Hunter Niswander is able to step in right away, the Wildcats may be just fine on kickoffs.
This Year or Last Year: Toss-Up
I'm sure this will generate a lot of response from Budzien fans, who will point to his statistics from last year as reason that he's turned the corner. He's certainly earned the right to be called one of the top Big Ten kickers, but as mentioned above, it'll be tough for him to maintain the same level of accuracy. However, if he can improve his range, the Wildcats' kicking game could be even better in 2013.
Then there is the question of kickoffs. Can Niswander step in right away? Does Budzien have the leg to handle kickoffs, let along both kickoffs and field goals? There are too many questions to be answered to anoint the 2013 unit better than 2012's, or vice versa. However, there is certainly potential for the special teams to be even better this season.