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Northwestern football season in review: Grading the special teams

It was a wild season for Northwestern’s third phase of the game.

NCAA Football: Nebraska at Northwestern Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

Now that we’ve had some time to reflect after Northwestern wrapped up its 2018 season with a Holiday Bowl victory, it’s time to go back and break down the performance of each position group during the 9-win campaign. We’ll give out some individual grades and also provide an early preview into what that unit will look like in 2019. Let’s look at a group that had an extremely abnormal year.

Overall grade: C+

It was a pretty bizarre year for the special teams unit. The group had to deal with injuries, more injuries, and some rather odd circumstances. Coming into the year, it was assumed that Charlie Kuhbander would handle the team’s place kicking duties, with preferred walk-on Drew Luckenbaugh handling the kickoff role. Graduate transfer Jake Collins was positioned to be the team’s punter, and all would be well. Not so much.

Player grades

Charlie Kuhbander: C

Stats: 5-of-9 field goals, 28-of-28 extra points

It was a trying year for the sophomore kicker. After a stellar freshman campaign, Kuhbander struggled in the third game of the year, missing two short kicks in a loss to Akron. He rebounded with a career-long 45-yard kick against Michigan, but it was evident that something was off. Following the Michigan State game, in which Kuhbander missed his only attempt, it was revealed that he was struggling with a torn muscle.

After sitting out for a brief period, Kuhbander returned for games against Wisconsin and Notre Dame. He converted on 1-of-2 attempts, but was forced out of action again. He returned for the Big Ten Championship and Holiday Bowl, where he made both of his two attempts.

On the positive side, Kuhbander did convert on all 28 of his extra point attempts. He went 5-of-9 on field goals for the season, but considering the injury he was struggling with all year, it would be harsh to look at his output for the season solely based on the numbers.

Jake Collins: B-

Stats: 40.5 yards per punt, 2-of-3 field goals, 5-of-5 extra points

Collins came to Northwestern as a graduate transfer from Western Kentucky. He averaged 40.5 yards on his punts this year, but he also did spot-duty as a placekicker and on kickoffs after Charlie Kuhbander and Drew Luckenbaugh both struggled with injuries.

His 40.5 yard average places him in the lower half of all NCAA punters, and he wasn’t able to get significant air time on his punts throughout the year. He was effective in getting the ball to run out after the bounce, but he was very average overall.

That being said, he filled in valiantly at kicker against Iowa, Minnesota, and Illinois. Collins converted on 2-of-3 field goal attempts while handling both kickoffs and punts. He also connected on all five of his extra point attempts.

Drew Luckenbaugh: A-

Stats: 3-of-4 field goals, 6-of-7 extra points

It’s kind of wild to think about, but Luckenbaugh was a huge reason that Northwestern was able to turn its season around. Filling in for an injured Charlie Kuhbander against Nebraska, he made two massive kicks, one a game-winner in overtime. His efforts against Nebraska earned him Big Ten special teams player of the week honors.

Luckenbaugh was also consistent as Northwestern’s kickoff specialist, despite injuries. Despite limited opportunities, he came up big for Northwestern this year.

Kick/Punt Return Units: B+

Stats: 23.7 yards per kick return, 6.1 yards per punt return

The biggest thing for Northwestern this year regarding kick and punt returns is that there were no catastrophic errors from either unit. Neither Kyric McGowan, who mainly handled kickoff return duties, or Riley Lees, who took care of the punt return role, committed any mistakes that truly cost Northwestern.

Neither had impressive numbers by any means, but they did their jobs. The only issue from Lees was the frequency of punts that he let drop, allowing the ball to roll further for significant yardage differences.

The punt return team did have a huge moment in a primetime showdown with Notre Dame. Down 10 with nine minutes remaining, freshman Cam Ruiz came up with a timely blocked punt to jolt the ‘Cats right back into the game. Unfortunately, they weren’t able to rally and pull off the upset, but it was still a very cool moment.

Looking ahead to 2019:

Charlie Kuhbander returns to handle place kicking duties. Hopefully, if he is able to return to full health, he will regain the form that he found in his freshman season. It would be a massive boost for Northwestern to be able to have trust in its kicker, especially for situations such as fourth-and-six from the 27, where Fitz would frequently choose to go for it in 2018 due to a lack of faith in Kuhbander, Luckenbaugh, or Collins.

Northwestern will be losing Jake Collins, with rising sophomores Jake Genyk and Cody Gronewold the only punters on the roster. It will also be adding early-enrollee Trey Finison. It’s possible that one of the three might be able to step up and fill the role, but Fitz will likely be in the market for a new punter on the transfer market.

For the return teams, both McGowan and Lees will be back next year, so it is fair to assume the two will enter camp as leaders in the two respective positions. It’ll be interesting to see if Fitz decides to get more aggressive with returns next year, or if he continues to take advantage of the fair catch rule on the kickoff.