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Northwestern football season in review: Grading the special teams

Charlie Kuhbander was a bright spot.

NCAA Football: Minnesota at Northwestern Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

Now that we’ve had some time to reflect after Northwestern wrapped up its 2017 season with a Music City Bowl victory, it’s time to go back and break down the performance of each position group during the 10-win campaign. We’ll give out some individual grades and also provide an early preview into what that unit will look like in 2018. The penultimate group to examine is the special teams.

Overall grade: B

Northwestern's individual specialists were good. Freshman kicker Charlie Kuhbander proved reliable, and Hunter Niswander posted the best season of his career. Where things weren't so good, however, was the return game, which drags the special teams grade down. The Wildcats' field position wasn't awful in 2017, but the strength of the defense aided that.

The Wildcats' kickoff success rate ranked 116th in the country in S&P+, and the kickoff return success rate ranked 124th. Quite simply, that's terrible. On kickoffs, Luke Otto had 20 touchbacks on 68 kicks — that's not good. On returns, Solomon Vault's offseason injury certainly hurt a lot, but NU couldn't even find a half-decent replacement, whether it was Riley Lees, John Moten IV or Jeremy Larkin.

Riley Lees was pretty good on punt returns, but the sample size was small.

There were some positives and some negatives, so Northwestern lands in the middle with a B grade.

Individual player grades

K Charlie Kuhbander: A-

Kuhbander performed admirably as a first-year kicker. He hit 13 of 16 tries, and two of his misses came from over 40 yards; his other miss came from close range on his first collegiate kick in Week 1 against Nevada.

Pat Fitzgerald didn't take a ton of chances with him — Kuhbander had no attempts over 50 yards — but he did hit two from 40-plus.

As far as clutchness goes, the jury is still out. Kuhbander didn't get much of a chance to take high-pressure kicks, in large part thanks to Fitz's willingness to go for it on fourth downs.

Overall, Kuhbander had a good season. Northwestern is set at the position for years to come.

P Hunter Niswander: A-

Hunter the Punter posted the best season of his career, averaging 43 yards per punt. He also had a mammoth 80-yard boot in an overtime win against Iowa, which is insane.

Niswander doesn't have any eligibility left, so NU will have to find a new punter come 2018. Underclassmen Drew Luckenbaugh and Cody Gronewold are the only punters on the current roster.

Looking ahead to 2018

The punting situation is up in the air, but Fitzgerald should feel good with Kuhbander coming back. The big question with Kuhbander is whether he can become a weapon as a placekicker, rather than someone who's called upon when the only option is to kick.

As far as kickoffs, it's hard to predict success from one year to the next. Vault's return should help tremendously with the return unit, even if he doesn’t have 100 percent of his old burst after surgery. With Otto leaving, the kick coverage unit could conceivably get worse, but it was poor in 2017, so that would be pretty bad.

With Kuhbander and Vault in the fold, Northwestern special teams have some key pieces in place as the Wildcats head into a season where the team's most important piece, Clayton Thorson, might not be available.