Northwestern’s football program has seen exponential growth in the past decade, thanks to the production of a number of players that have established themselves as program greats throughout the past 10 years. From quarterbacks to kickers, we took a look at the depth chart of the decade.
Our final edition will cover the special teams stars that have passed through Evanston in the past ten years.
Reminder: this team’s selection is based solely on each player’s Northwestern career. Now let’s get to it.
First Team: Jeff Budzien, 2010-2013
Not only was Budzien the best kicker to play for Northwestern, he was one of the best kickers in the country while in Evanston. A first team All American, two-time Big Ten kicker of the year and all time NU points leader, Budzien was an incredible player, smashing the ball through the uprights with tremendous reliability across his career. Budzien never missed an extra point and had a remarkable 87 percent conversion rate on field goals. In the end, this selection wasn’t even a question.
Second Team: Jack Mitchell, 2014-2016
Though Mitchell didn’t have the numbers that Budzien did, he was another solid and reliable kicker for Fitz’s team. Most notably, Mitchell knocked in two 40+ yard field goals in that famous win 2014 against the Fighting Irish. He’s third in Northwestern’s history for points scored and made a strong mark on the program.
Honorable Mentions: Charlie Kuhbander
First Team: Hunter Niswander, 2014-2017
Evaluating a punter’s ability statistically isn’t always the easiest thing to do, as average is a fairly deceiving stat, but Niswander’s tells a pretty good story. The Ohio native had a big leg, averaging 40+ yards per punt over his NU career, but he also had the ability to pin opponents inside their twenty on a consistent basis.
Second Team: Brandon Williams, 2010-2013
Highlighted in the above image as a holder, Williams was a four year starter that had a knack for giving opponents poor field position. He also had a diverse skill set as a punter, both bombing punts (his record long was a 77 yard blast) and pinning balls inside the 20 in the right situations.
Honorable Mentions: Jake Collins
First Team: Venric Mark, 2010-2013
Mark was yet another remarkable special teams talent for NU. A first team All-American punt returner (the only non-kicker on this entire two-deep who can say that), Mark averaged 18 yards per return, a ridiculous number, and reached the end zone twice on punts specifically. He was a playmaker in the open field and while the latter end of his career was hampered due to injuries, his shiftiness and quickness will never be forgotten by ‘Cats fans.
Second Team: Riley Lees, 2017-2019
Lees isn’t necessarily the flashiest player, and he certainly isn’t going to get you 18 yards per return, but he’s an efficient punt returner that will rarely make major errors, and that is all Fitz will usually ask for.
All in all, Lees is a player that gets the job that is asked of him done when fielding punts, and though he had shaky moments earlier in his career, there is a reason that we called him the “smartest punt returner in college football” several times during 2019. Lees has truly grown into the role, and is more than capable when it comes to fielding punts.
First Team: Solomon Vault, 2014-2018
A prolific kick returner, Vault was a four-year weapon for the ‘Cats. He notched four return touchdowns while in Evanston, averaging 25 yards per kick return. That number allowed Northwestern to continuously start with solid field position, and he had the power to shift the momentum of a game in a heartbeat, notably in the big 2016 win over Michigan State or that same season against Duke. His efforts were rewarded as twice Vault was named to the All-Big Ten team as a return specialist.
Second Team: Venric Mark, 2010-2013
His second appearance on the two-deep is well warranted. Mark averaged 23 yards per return and ran one back during his tenure. While he wasn’t quite as prolific on kick returns as he was on punts, he was an effective return man that posed a threat to teams that would kick to him, and he still does hold both the all-time and single-season kick return yards record in Evanston.