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Northwestern football summer guide: Special Teams

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This unit certainly had its ups and downs, and must improve in 2015.

Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Over the next few weeks, Inside NU will be releasing its 2015 Northwestern Football Summer Guide, a season preview that will look at each positional unit, address the biggest storylines, and answer the most pressing questions that face the Wildcats this fall.

First up, we have our position previews, which serve as a primer for how things could shake out for each group ahead of fall camp in August. To wrap things up, we take a look at special teams:

Returning Starters: K Jack Mitchell (Jr.), KR/PR Miles Shuler (Sr.), KR/PR Solomon Vault (So.)
Key Losses: KR Treyvon Green, PR Tony Jones, P Chris Gradone
Other Returning Players: P/K Hunter Niswander (So.), P/K Matt Micucci (Jr.), K Arthur Omilian (Sr.)
Incoming Freshmen: K Mason Weissenhoffer, PR/KR Jelani Roberts

Special teams, as a whole, were extremely inconsistent for Northwestern in 2014. One game, you'd get Jack Mitchell pulling off his best Adam Vinatieri impression (Notre Dame) and another game, he'd miss not one but two extra points (Penn State). Even Chris Gradone had his moments, pinning Wisconsin inside its own 10-yard line four times in one game. But he's gone and Hunter Niswander must bring a better leg to the punting unit.

Northwestern's punt return unit looked alright statistically last year, but Tony Jones' 64-yard punt return touchdown accounted for nearly half of the team's punt return yards, and Jones has graduated. The kick returners, namely Miles Shuler and Solomon Vault, were nothing special either. Vault made the one big play in the Illinois game, but was never really 100-percent healthy after straining his hamstring on a first-quarter return against Penn State. Vault could be NU's biggest playmaker in the return game this year.

Key Player

Hunter Niswander

Hunter the Punter. (Unfortunately that nickname is already taken, but still.) He needs to step up in a major way for the Wildcats this year. Last month, I touched on one underlying cause of Northwestern's struggles since its magical 2012 season: field position. The relationship between winning football teams and good field position is pretty strong. And our Jason Dorow even thinks Niswander belongs on the list Top 10 most important players for Northwestern this year. Field position is key; punters are a major part of field position; Chris Gradone is no longer on the team. So... All eyes on you, Hunter.

Biggest Question

Will the real Jack Mitchell please stand up?

Jack Mitchell won Big Ten Special Teams Player of the Week once last season. You can probably guess which week that was. He also, however, didn't make a field goal over 29 yards before that magical week. But he will undoubtedly be a key part of Northwestern's season, not only as a point scorer but also on kickoffs, where he wasn't especially proficient last year. If Mitchell can be counted on as a solid, if not standout, kicker, that would be huge for Northwestern. The Wildcats often had to go for it on fourth downs just outside the redzone because Mitchell couldn't be counted on to convert from 30-plus yards. If he can convert consistently from the longer ranges this year, Northwestern won't have to risk taking possible points off the board by going for it.

Projected Depth Chart


Kicker Punter Kick Returner Punt Returner
1st string Jack Mitchell Hunter Niswander Solomon Vault OR Miles Shuler Miles Shuler
2nd string Mason Weissenhoffer Jack Mitchell Jelani Roberts Solomon Vault OR Jelani Roberts

Kicker and punter starters are pretty straightforward. Both Vault and Shuler should be the main returners, and may be interchangeable, though Vault only returned kickoffs last year, not punts. Both, however, have had injury issues in the past and, should one or both not hold up, it would be interesting to see who is behind them. Roberts, a 153-pound true freshman, has explosive speed. The most likely scenario is that he redshirts, but if he doesn't, his main action could very likely be on special teams. The other variable is Mason Weissenhoffer, who has impressive leg strength. He's a walk on, but perhaps he could be a kickoff specialist, especially considering Mitchell's struggles in that area.