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Northwestern football position preview: Special Teams

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The unit should improve but must replace its punt returner

Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports

The second part of our 2016 Summer Guide is position previews. For each position, we'll outline who's returning, who's gone and what the big question facing the unit is before finishing up with our projected depth chart for each position.

The final group is special teams, where most players return for 2016.

Overview

Returning starters: Jack Mitchell (Sr.), Hunter Niswander (Jr.), LS Chris Fitzpatrick (Sr.), KR Solomon Vault (Jr.)

Key losses: PR Miles Shuler, H Christian Salem

Other returners: K Matt Micucci

Incoming freshmen: K Drew Luckenbaugh, LS Tyler Gillikin

The unit remains mostly intact from last year and is very, very experienced. The entire placekicking battery is made up of upperclassmen (assuming Hunter Niswander slides in as the holder). Solomon Vault is one of the best kick returners in the nation, and the loss of Miles Shuler won't be too difficult to overcome considering his relative lack of production.

Key Player

Jack Mitchell

Mitchell quit baseball to focus on football full-time this offseason, and his progress will be key to Northwestern's success in 2016. Mitchell has a ton of game-winners and other late-game clutch kicks, but he's been very inconsistent. He missed nine field goals and three extra points alone last year, including one in the bowl game against Tennessee. Having a good college football kicker helps so much, because the difference between a good kicker and a middling kicker can be extreme, much more so than in the NFL. If Mitchell can prove his accuracy and distance has improved, that not only changes how the Wildcats approach drives inside the opponent's 40, but also helps in the field position battle, which Northwestern had trouble in last year.

Big Question

Who replaces Miles Shuler at punt returner?

Although Shuler wasn't a standout returner by any stretch of the word, he was mostly solid last year and took care of the ball. Because he's really the only big departure on special teams, who replaces him is the biggest question. Pat Fitzgerald mentioned it could be standout cornerback Matt Harris, but that also presents a major injury risk. At this point, our knowledge of the position is still limited.

Depth Chart

1st string 2nd string 3rd string
Kicker Jack Mitchell Hunter Niswander Matt Micucci
Punter Hunter Niswander Matt Micucci
Holder Hunter Niswander
Long Snapper Chris Fitzpatrick Tyler Gillikin
Kick Returner Solomon Vault Auston Anderson Jelani Roberts
Punt Returner Matt Harris Jelani Roberts Auston Anderson
Gunners Warren Long Keith Watkins

The depth chart isn't too complicated. Punt returner and, to some extent, holder are the only two positions where the starters aren't entrenched in their roles. Long and Watkins are two of the best in the business when it comes to punt coverage.