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Northwestern is failing miserably on punt returns

Back in 2012, punt returns were a major strength for Northwestern. Two years later, Pat Fitzgerald has his star safety on return duty, and he looks ineffective and out of place.

Jonathan Daniel

The Northwestern Wildcats have problems -- that shouldn’t be news to anybody. You don’t start 0-2 against two supposedly inferior teams without deficiencies in all three phases of the game, and that has been the case for NU.

Over the past 10 days, most of the analytical focus has been on two phases, the offense and the defense. And rightly so, because those two have the most bearing on the final result of the game, and are more important than special teams. But that doesn’t mean special teams are insignificant.

In fact, one of the more perplexing, and even worrying areas in Northwestern’s two losses has been special teams, and specifically punt returns.

Back in 2012 -- also known as the year of Venric Mark -- punt returns were a valuable play for the Wildcats. Mark took two back to the house, and averaged a whopping 18.7 yards per return, which would’ve been tops in the nation had he returned enough punts to qualify (all he needed were a few more).

Mark was NU’s big play guy all year, and thus, Pat Fitzgerald decided that handing him the returner role on a consistent basis was worth the risk. And it payed off. The Wildcats ended the year ranked 8th in the nation in punt return efficiency, a Football Outsiders stat that measures "the scoring value per opponent punt earned by the receiving team." That contributed to an overall special teams unit that FO ranked 4th in the nation, and that was a considerable part of NU’s 9-3 season.

Another way in which Mark’s returns helped were with regards to field position. In 2012, NU ranked 18th nationally in field position advantage, another FO metric that measures "the share of the value of total starting field position earned by each team against its opponents." Again, that’s a big positive.

However, since 2012, NU has fallen off in the punt return department. With Mark injured for much of last year and now gone from the program altogether, regression should have been expected. But it likely wasn’t all about Mark; the whole return unit had to have been good in 2012. And Tony Jones, who returned the majority of punts for NU last year, is no slouch.

But starting in 2013, the unit became mediocre. Last year, Northwestern fell from 8th to 66th in punt return efficiency, and from 18th to 80th in field position advantage. That’s a significant decline. And while we don’t have updated 2014 stats yet after just two weeks, it looks like more of the same.

Against NIU on Saturday, the issue was glaring. First of all, there’s absolutely no explanation for Fitzgerald’s decision to use star safety Ibraheim Campbell as a returner. Fitzgerald’s original announcement during training camp raised eyebrows, but to actually see Campbell back there is confounding.

Campbell has no previous experience as a returner at the college level -- neither kick returns nor punt returns. But more importantly, he’s an every-down defensive lynchpin, and arguably Northwestern’s best player. So whereas most coaches at the college and pro levels are reluctant to put key offensive or defensive players on returns because of the injury risk -- the idea being that these players are too valuable in their other role -- Fitzgerald throws Campbell out there anyway.

Oh, and then there’s this: Campbell isn’t even good -- as a punt returner, that is. It doesn’t take an expert to notice this.

Here are three NIU punts from last weekend’s game. On the first one, Huskies punter Tyler Wedel booms a 57-yarder. Campbell backpedals, but looks uneasy doing so, and for some reason, lets the ball bounce. Luckily for him, it bounces right up into his hands, so the end result isn’t damaging, but it’s a sign of things to come.

The second one is another decent punt from Wedel. But two things happen. First, NU sort of goes for the block with four players, but gets nowhere close. They also don’t set up any kind of return. Then Campbell, with two NIU players bearing down on him, slightly misjudges the ball, doesn’t call a fair catch, lunges to pull in the punt, and is tackled immediately. Again, no damage done, but a sign that he’s uncomfortable.

The third is a huge play in the game. Northwestern is down 10-7, and has just forced a Northern Illinois punt. On 4th-and-2, NU keeps its defense on the field to account for a potential fake punt, and presumably sacrifices any return. Naturally, Campbell’s job should be to call a fair catch immediately, get under the ball, and make the grab. But he makes no attempt to go for the ball, and instead just stands there, waiving his arms to get his teammates away from the ball.

Had Campbell caught the ball, the Wildcats would have had good field position, roughly at their own 37-yard line. Instead, the ball bounced all the way down to the 22-yard line. On the subsequent drive, Northwestern would gain 49 yards, but come away with no points. The punt return play was killer.

In conclusion, there's really nothing to justify Campbell returning punts. He's never done it in the past, and looks less than convincing in the present. Plus, there are players like Miles Shuler, Solomon Vault, and others who we know can be explosive with the ball in their hands, and who are less valuable to this team in their other roles.

Overall, whether the slump in punt return efficiency -- which is well on its way to continuing this year -- is due to conservative coaching, failures in execution, or something else, it’s certainly troubling. And while it might not be the most prominent of NU’s problems, it shouldn’t be overlooked.