With Northwestern's regular season over, and only the bowl game remaining, it's time to evaluate the Wildcats' 2015 season. Over the next two weeks, between Monday, Dec. 14 and Christmas, we'll be going position by position and doling out grades to every Northwestern player that was a significant contributor this year. We'll start with the quarterbacks, progress through the offense, move over to the defensive side of the ball, and then finish up with special teams on Christmas Eve.
With all defensive and offensive units done, it's time to look to the third phase to conclude our end-of-season player grades.
While Tennessee may have a clear advantage in special teams, we shouldn't overlook Northwestern's above-average special teams unit this season. Overall, Northwestern finished 30th in the country in special teams efficiency on ESPNand 57th in FEI on Football Outsiders. Those ranks are above average and a huge improvement over 62nd and 108th, respectively, in 2014.
Solomon Vault - A+
Without Solomon Vault's kickoff return touchdowns against Penn State and Duke, Northwestern probably would not be 10-2. Vault's electrifying touchdown to begin the second half against Duke was one of the turning points of the season, and the touchdown against Penn State proved crucial as Northwestern's offense faltered in the second half. Those two game-changing plays were enough to earn Vault an A+. Vault ended the season with 620 kickoff return yards and two touchdowns. His average of 27 yards per return led the Big Ten. While advanced stats on such a small sample size of kick returns are not too reliable, Northwestern ended the year sixth in kickoff return efficiency thanks to Solomon Vault. Credit to the kickoff return blocking unit as well for springing Vault on his two big runs this year.
Miles Shuler - B+
Shuler did not have too many returns this year, but he managed to not have any lost fumbles as a punt returner. His best return was a 55-yarder against Minnesota that helped Northwestern score a touchdown and take a 10-0 lead into half. Overall, nothing too spectacular from Shuler, but he did his job effectively â other than, you know, that fair catch at the 3-yard line.
Hunter Niswander - C+
Hunter Niswander does not have the biggest leg in college football. His average punt distance ranked 122nd in the NCAA. Now, to be fair, Niswander had to punt the ball 78 times this year thanks to Northwestern's offensive issues, and some of those punts were from the opposition's territory, lowering the average. He wasn't amazing at pinning opponents at the five though. Niswander's regular punts downfield probably lost Northwestern about 3-4 yards on average.
Jack Mitchell - C+
Jack Mitchell did not have a standout season. His 69.2 percent field goal percentage was poor and he missed several field goal attempts at the end of the season that nearly cost Northwestern. The two field goal misses against Wisconsin and Penn State could have lost Northwestern both games if not for excellent defensive play, a heave to Austin Carr, and a nonsensical catch rule. While Mitchell was not downright terrible at field goals compared to college kickers overall, his performance was magnified by Northwestern's offensive struggles, which made his misses even more important.
Kick Return Coverage - B-
While Northwestern did not allow multiple kickoff return touchdowns this season, the one it allowed on the very first play against Michigan was a complete disaster. While Northwestern may not have beaten Michigan, that play seemed to take Northwestern out of the game completely, which directly led to the 38-0 beatdown. Northwestern finished 114th in kickoff efficiency this season, which indicates that the kickoff coverage unit was not great this year. Otherwise, the unit was serviceable, but that one crucial play knocks them down a bit.
Punt Return Coverage - A-
Aside from the disastrous play against Wisconsin that was waved off due to an improper fair catch signal, the punt return coverage was solid all year. Northwestern was 43rd in punting efficiency and the punting unit did not surrender a touchdown all season.
Christian Salem - No grade
Frankly, it is impossible to give a grade to the best holder of the modern era. When Plato argued his Theory of Forms, he envisioned that humanity would never comprehend the abstract definition of any truths. Clearly, Plato failed to recognize that thousands of years later, Christian Salem would arrive and display the true Platonic ideal of the art of holding footballs in 2015. Therefore, his performance surpassed any arbitrary grading system that mere mortals can assess. Salem's holds will go down in the annals of football history. Every hold will surely become a critical moment in the history of American sports. In the end, there is no grade for perfection.
Move over Peter Mortell, Christian Salem has transcended reality itself. He's also a pretty solid and humble talk show host. I'm sure media organizations will soon be lining up to have a living legend as their color commentator.