Spring practice has now finished up for Northwestern and over the past couple of months we've been able to learn about how each position group is shaping up for the fall. Following the "spring game" we will be posting group reviews detailing "The Good," "The Bad" and "The Biggest Question" facing each group. We continue with the special teams unit.
Jack Mitchell's performance in Northwestern's shocking upset of Notre Dame in South Bend this past November was about as thrilling and exciting a performance as a kicker can have in college football. He made four of his five field goal attempts -- three of which were in the 40-49 yard range -- including a 45-yarder in the fourth quarter to send the game to overtime and a 41-yarder in the extra frame to seal the 43-40 victory. The game was a microcosm of a strong season for the rising junior, who went 14-18 on field goals and 26-28 on extra points in 2014.
He's expected to remain the starter when Northwestern opens its 2015 slate against Stanford this September, and should only be getting better. Hunter Niswander, a redshirt sophomore, who was the backup punter last season could potentially see time at kicker if Mitchell -- an outfielder on NU's baseball team as well -- struggles, but don't expect a change anytime soon.
Although missing just four out of 18 field goal tries for a season is a decent mark for college football, Mitchell is by no means a dominant force when called upon. However, his potential deficiencies aside, the real issue for this Wildcats team is at punter. Chris Gradone, a one-year starter, graduated after his junior year, so the spot is wide open for the likes of Niswander -- presumably -- to take. Niswander had five punts last season, so he at least has some experience, albeit extremely limited.
Obviously, it's hard to tell what he -- or someone else -- can do as a first-time college starting punter, but it's safe to say there will be some sort of learning curve. It's likely the Wildcats have some issues with the punting unit this season.
The Biggest Question
Can Jack Mitchell repeat his strong performance from the 2014 season?
Mitchell redshirted his first year at Northwestern and didn't play in his actual freshman season before assuming Jeff Budzien's vacated starting role at kicker last season. He was passable, with some moments of greatness. The real issue is whether he can replicate that play in his second full year as the starter. Considering how unsure the offense is, Mitchell could have a pretty crucial role to play.