Returning starters: Charlie Kuhbander (PK), Riley Lees (PR), Kyric McGowan (KR), Tyler Gillikin (LS)
Key Losses: Jake Collins (P)
Returners: Drew Luckenbaugh (PK), Jake Genyk (P), Cody Gronewald (P)
Newcomers: Trey Finison (PK), Connor Newhouse (ATH), Marcus Cisco (ATH)
Besides the loss of punter Jake Collins, who was (somewhat surprisingly) the most consistent player on last season’s special team’s unit, the Wildcats will be bringing back the same special teams core for the most part. Collins’ loss, however, may prove to have a telling impact on the team.
The graduate transfer from Western Kentucky might not be as replaceable as other positions on the roster. Punting isn’t the most glamorous part of football, but field-position is vital in Big Ten games, and can often be the difference between a win and a loss.
For the rest of the special teams, Wildcat fans should expect to see some consistency in who will be getting the majority of the reps. Placekicker Charlie Kuhbander looks to regain his starting spot after Luckenbaugh and even Collins filled in towards the end of the 2019 season.
Meanwhile, Kyric McGowan and Riley Lees will look to continue building upon a relatively successful 2018 season as the primary punt and kick returners, respectively. Neither had the flashiest seasons, but they did their jobs and didn’t turn the ball over. Since the departure of Solomon Vault, however, there has been a bit of big-play potential missing in the Wildcat return game. We will see if Fitzgerald and Jeff Genyk try out new guys back there to perhaps add a spark to the return game.
From the kicking spot, Charlie Kuhbander looks to regain some of his magic from his promising first season. As a true freshman, Kuhbander set the Northwestern single-season records for field goals (13) and points (82) for a first year kicker. He also set the Wildcat single-game record for field goals as a freshman (3) and finished fifth in the Big Ten in kicking efficiency.
Last year wasn’t as much of a success for the young placekicker as his first year was. As a sophomore, Kuhbander missed four games with a lower-body injury along with four field goals. The rising junior was also replaced on the kickoff unit by Drew Luckenbaugh, though that placement may have been temporary.
Health was a concern last season, but barring any setback, there is no reason to think that place kicking will be a significant issue for the ‘Cats in 2019.
Will there be confidence in the starting punter on opening day?
Replacing Jake Collins at the punter position will most likely be Cody Gronewald. Gronewald has yet to punt at the collegiate level, but his high school accolades speak for themselves: the prestigious Kohl’s Kicking Camp awarded the redshirt sophomore a 4.5 star rating. Gronewold averaged 40.6 net yards over 44 punts in his final season of high school. He also proved to be a competent kicker from the spot - going 16/17 with a season long of 47 yards. You never know when it will be useful having a versatile punter (in case you missed it, Collins finished the last three games of 2018 as Northwestern’s kicker!).
Gronewold could struggle early, though, without any college experience to back up his high school success. If he, or whoever the Wildcats put in that position, can’t hit the ground running, Northwestern will have difficulty winning the field position battle on a regular basis. With NU’s typical margin of victory being relatively small, that could easily be the deciding factor.