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2018 Northwestern football position previews: Special Teams

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With an exclusive position coach for the first time ever, Wildcat special teams will look to break out.

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

Overview:

Returning starters (career starts): Charlie Kuhbander (12), Tyler Gillikin (12)

Key Losses: Hunter Niswander (30 career games)

Other Returners: Solomon Vault (R-Sr.), Riley Lees (R-So.), Flynn Nagel (Sr.), Daniel Kubiuk (Sr.)

Newcomers: Jake Collins (R-Sr., Grad Transfer)

The loss of Niswander, whose steady improvement throughout his Wildcat career culminated in an above-average senior season, initially seemed certain to be a big blow. But for new coordinator Jeff Genyk, the addition of graduate transfer Jake Collins should help significantly in that regard. The rugby-style punter was solid throughout his time with Western Kentucky, and is coming off All-Conference USA Honorable Mention honors.

Kuhbander is coming off a good, if unspectacular, freshman campaign. Though the highly touted Ohio native wasn’t really given the chance to show off his leg after winning the job, he went 13-16 on field goals and missed just one extra point all year. Look for Fitzgerald, with the help of Genyk, to place a little more trust in the talented kicker with a full season under his belt.

Tyler Gillikin stepped in as a redshirt freshman walk on to long snap last year and didn’t miss a beat, going 127 snaps without a real mistake. He’ll be back this year. As for returners, Northwestern has a lot to choose from. Solomon Vault and Jalen Brown, each of whom were expected to factor into the return game, missed all of 2017 with injuries. After Flynn Nagel began the season returning punts and kicks, Riley Lees stepped into the primary role in both regards, with help from several running backs on kickoffs. Genyk’s only real decisions, barring injuries elsewhere, will come within this group.

Genyk merits a brief description himself: the new head of Wildcat special teams held the same role (along with myriad others) in his initial coaching stint with Northwestern from 1994 to 2003. Since then, he has had a five-year stint as the head coach at Eastern Michigan and gone through three other special teams coordinator positions, most notably overlooking a remarkable turnaround at Cal. For a Northwestern unit that has been consistently mediocre since at least 2010, a dedicated Genyk could help provide an edge.

Key Player:

Jake Collins

In the Big Ten, with the premium usually placed on field position, great punting can change the game. Collins, stepping into a complete void at Northwestern, has shown the ability to be that great punter. The graduate transfer was the last cut from my Most Important Players list because he has shown the ability to both limit returns with his rugby style (allowing his gunners to get further down the field before he kicks it) and consistently park the ball inside the 20.

Last season, Western Kentucky ranked 37th in punt success rate to Northwestern’s 45th, though both had very similar percentages. Niswander kicked it a bit farther than Collins, who averaged a career-low 40.2 yards per punt, but Collins made up for it by landing 18 of his 57 punts inside the 20 compared to Niswander’s 19 of 67. Though, like any college punter, Collins has his struggles, averaging 30.7 yards per punt against Illinois and also doing this later in the year, he has already shown his significant potential.

With another year’s worth of improvement, Collins could rank among the Big Ten’s upper echelon, giving Northwestern a definitive field position advantage. But if the bigger stage overwhelms him or he falls prey to inconsistency, the Wildcats don’t have much in the way of other options.

Big Question:

Who is going to return kicks and punts?

The seemingly obvious answer to this question is Solomon Vault. The speedy senior has the most experience as a return man and has already shown that he can strike dynamite at any time with the ball in his hands. But coming off a significant lower-body injury can complicate things, and Northwestern certainly has plenty of other potential options. Jalen Brown, coming off his own season-ending injury, is arguably even faster and shiftier than Vault. The former four-star recruit doesn’t have much experience as a return man, though.

Meanwhile, Riley Lees worked his way into a starting job last year, and though he began the season with a timid approach, the redshirt sophomore grew into the role. Lees doesn’t have the explosiveness of the other main contenders, but he’s shown himself to be relatively reliable as at least a punt returner. Also in the conversation for punt returns is Flynn Nagel, though he may just focus on receiver this year. Last year, Jeremy Larkin and Jelani Roberts both returned kickoffs, and both should be somewhere in the mix once more.

If Vault is completely back to his old self, his gamebreaking ability should put him squarely in line to receive the lion’s share of returns. Regardless, many others will be in the mix, and should Vault falter, Northwestern could go back to somewhat of a committee in a search for difference makers.

Projected Depth Chart:

Special Teams Depth

Position 1st String 2nd String 3rd String
Position 1st String 2nd String 3rd String
P Jake Collins Daniel Kubiuk Cody Gronewold
K Charlie Kuhbander Drew Luckenbaugh Alex Bousky
PR Solomon Vault Riley Lees Flynn Nagel
KR Solomon Vault Riley Lees Jalen Brown
LS Tyler Gillikin Peter Snodgrass