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Northwestern football season in review: Specialists grades

Northwestern was a mixed bag on special teams in 2016.

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Purdue Sandra Dukes-USA TODAY Sports

With the season in the rearview mirror, it’s time to assess how Northwestern’s individuals performed this season. All classes are according to the 2016 season. Northwestern’s special teams units have never been a strength, but there were some small signs of improvement in 2016.

K Jack Mitchell, field goal kicker (senior): D+

Stats: 8 or 12 on field goal attempts (long 40), 42 of 43 on extra points; 1 pass attempt, 2 yards

Jack Mitchell has caused great anguish for Northwestern fans this year, and in many respects he got worse in his senior year. Mitchell’s overall field goal accuracy dropped from 66 percent to 63 percent, but those numbers are misleading. Mitchell only attempted 11 field goals this year, which clearly showed that Pat Fitzgerald and the coaching staff did not exactly trust Mitchell to hit beyond 40 yards. For example, do you remember Jack Mitchell’s pass attempt against Nebraska? That was not a play you run if you trust your kicker to reliably hit non-chip-shot field goals.

Mitchell started the year one-of-four on field goals, which contributed to Northwestern losing the Illinois State game and creating a kicking competition with Matt Micucci. He then hit his next six field goals and all of his remaining extra points, which was good, but none of those attempts were longer than 33 yards until the win over Pitt (which he did convert). Meanwhile Northwestern went for it on fourth down constantly, which paid off sometimes (see the Pinstripe Bowl) and backfired other times (see the Minnesota loss). Whatever the case, Northwestern finished the year 104th in field goal efficiency per Football Outsiders. It was not a banner senior year for Jack Mitchell.

KR Solomon Vault, kickoff returner (junior): A-

Stats: 20 kick returns, 513 yards, one touchdown

Solomon Vault’s status as statistically the best kickoff returner in Northwestern history is unchallenged now. After yet another year with a momentum-swinging kickoff return touchdown in a critical game for Northwestern (I certainly still get chills from that Michigan State return), Vault is the undisputed master of kickoff returns for the Wildcats. He’s still very good, although his average return yards dropped slightly in 2016, and he is consistently a positive on special teams for Northwestern.

PR Flynn Nagel, returner (sophomore): B+

Stats: 19 punt returns for 132 yards, averaged 11 yds per game, 5 kickoff returns for 98 yards

Hey, Northwestern had a semi-competent punt returner for the first time in a while, and it paid dividends. Last year, Northwestern fair caught nearly every punt it received (if it caught the punt whatsoever). This year, Nagel showed some skill as a punt returner and broke off an impressive 47-yard return against Iowa. He gets a good grade simply by virtue of providing some positive value at the position.

K Jack Mitchell, kickoff specialist (senior): B

Stats: 32 touchbacks, 1 one out of bounds

Despite his struggles as a field goal kicker, Mitchell was decent at generating touchbacks.

P Hunter Niswander (junior): B

Stats: 41.4 yards per punt, 20 punts inside the 20, 10 punts inside the 10, 1 punt blocked

Hunter Niswander improved greatly in 2016. He increased his yards per punt by 5 yards, enough to finish 59th in the nation after languishing in 105th last season. Yards per punt is not a great statistic (ex. Niswander would be higher on the list if he hadn’t punted twice against Purdue), but it does show that his overall punting range increased in 2016. Considering Northwestern had to punt a lot in 2016 due to early offensive issues and persistent kicking issues, Niswander did a good job. He did have two punts blocked, although obviously that can’t entirely be his fault, and he didn’t have a fantastic bowl game, but otherwise Niswander was reliable in 2016, which is about as much as you can ask for. It’s a shame the punt coverage unit around him was a bit of a mess at times.

The punt and kickoff coverage units: C

Northwestern finished 105th in “net field position ranking” on Football Outsiders. Last year, Northwestern was 98th in net field position. The year before it was 104th. This is clearly a negative trend. For three years, Northwestern has given up short fields on defense and is often forced to sustain long drives on offense. That’s concerning.

The main reason Northwestern has struggled in the field position over the last few years is that the offense has often been bad, its punt returns are below average and Niswander hasn’t been great. But last year, Northwestern was usually bailed out by its kick and punt coverage teams. If Niswander and Mitchell were better at kicking the ball downfield, why did Northwestern struggle in field position?

Well, Northwestern’s punt and kick coverage units weren’t quite as good as they were last year. Many special teams players missed time with injury — Warren Long was sorely missed in this area, as was Matthew Harris — and that showed a couple times during the season. Iowa destroyed Northwestern on returns. Michigan State had a few decent returns as well. It wasn’t a complete catastrophe for Northwestern, but its normally vaunted coverage unit couldn’t maintain their success.

Overall grade: C+