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2017 Northwestern football position previews: Special teams

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How will this unit fare without Solomon Vault and Jack Mitchell?

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Purdue
This is what sheer athleticism looks like.
Sandra Dukes-USA TODAY Sports

The second part of our 2017 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.

Next up is the most special (teams) position preview of the summer.

Overview

Returning starters (career starts): Hunter Niswander (26)

Other returners: Mason Weissenhofer, Dan Kubiuk, Jelani Roberts, Flynn Nagel, and many, many more...

Key losses: Solomon Vault (out for season), Jack Mitchell, Matt Miccuci

Grad transfer: Luke Otto from Western Illinois

Redshirt freshmen: Drew Luckenbaugh

True freshmen: K Charlie Kuhbander, P Cody Gronewold

If there’s one area where Northwestern could improve without too much trouble, it’s special teams. As per usual in the last three seasons, Northwestern finished 98th and 100th in offensive and defensive field position ratings. The Wildcats were 104th in field goal efficiency. All too often, Northwestern is pinned back in its own territory, missing kicks and delivering poor punts or punt coverage downfield. It may not be the most important aspect to change on this team, but an improvement could make a huge difference in 2017.

Key Player

Not Jack Mitchell

Hey, Northwestern has a new kicker for 2017! That’s exciting! If you felt like Mitchell got worse throughout his career, you’d be correct. He ended his final season 8-for-12 at a 66.6 percent clip on field goals after starting his career with a 14-of-18 stretch in his first season.

Last year, there was a real risk that Mitchell could’ve lost his job to Matt Micucci after an abysmal start to the season. However, Micucci, also Northwestern’s holder last season, has graduated, meaning there is a whole new crew in town. Let’s look at the candidates for the kicking competition:

Drew Luckenbaugh - A redshirt freshman from York, Pennsylvania. He hit the most field goals in the state of Pennsylvania in 2013, but we’ve obviously never seen him kick at the college level. Longest field goal from his bio is 47 yards. Did not have a good time at the spring practices we saw.

Charlie Kuhbander - A true freshman, Kuhbander enters the program with some serious hype. He was a three-star recruit and the 3rd-best kicking prospect in the entire country in 2017, according to Kohl’s Kicking. Can his talent help him beat out guys who have been around all offseason?

Mason Weissenhoffer - The sophomore has been on the team for two years and not seen any game action. On paper, the unlikeliest of the trio, but he impressed this spring.

Will one of these three become Northwestern’s kicker of the future? We’d better hope so. My money’s on Kuhbander.

Big Question:

How important will the loss of Solomon Vault be?

For his entire career, you could usually count on Solomon Vault to singlehandedly change one game for Northwestern per season. Last year, his kickoff return touchdown against Michigan State shifted momentum right back to Northwestern en route to an emphatic win. His heroics against Penn State and Duke should not be forgotten either. Unfortunately, Vault is out for the season with an injury, leaving a huge void at kick returner.

It’s not necessarily a question of who will replace Vault as kickoff returner. Whomever the player is, whether it be Jelani Roberts, Marcus McShepard, or another candidate, the sheer potential to break a game open will be gone. This is problematic for Northwestern, as Vault was just about the only above-average aspect of its special teams units.

We cannot know the answer to this question until the season starts, but I’m fairly sure it will be a rather subtle transition. You won’t notice when Northwestern loses a few yards in the aggregate in 2017. You won’t notice when Northwestern doesn’t break off a return touchdown. No one notices the absences of talent on special teams. However, it will certainly be an issue. Northwestern needs to be at full strength to compete in the West, and this is already a downer.

Notes:

  • We thought Hunter Niswander would be the holder coming out of spring, but right now Dan Kubiuk is listed as an official holder on the roster. He has Division I baseball experience, so this could be a good idea.
  • Flynn Nagel should be back returning punts while doubling as Northwestern’s lead receiver. However, if he gets hurt at any time while performing this task, I suspect that’ll stop immediately.
  • Northwestern is losing some really good special teams players! Anthony Walker played some special teams snaps. Joe Jones also played a huge role on that squad. Northwestern needs to have some guys step up, or else there will be many repeats of that Iowa catastrophe.

Projected Depth Chart:

Depth Chart

Kick Returner Punt Returner Long Snapper Holder Kicker Punter
Kick Returner Punt Returner Long Snapper Holder Kicker Punter
Jelani Roberts (Jr.) Flynn Nagel (Jr.) Trevor Stroebel (Sr.) Hunter Niswander (Sr.) Charlie Kuhbander Hunter Niswander (Sr.)
Auston Anderson (Jr.) Jelani Roberts (Jr.) Dan Kubiuk (R-Jr.) Mason Weissenhoffer (So.)
Marcus McShepard (Sr.) Marcus McShepard (Sr.) Drew Luckenbaugh (So.)