After a shortened season capped by a Citrus Bowl victory, it’s time to begin our postseason coverage by handing out grades and taking a look at what’s to come in the fall. We’ll evaluate each position group and discuss how well they performed, as well as what the future might hold. Up next are the specialists.
Overall grade: A-
Consistent and productive. That’s the best way to describe how Northwestern’s specialists played in 2020. Veteran kicker Charlie Kuhbander had a great year after making a few crucial mistakes in 2019, and on the punting side, transfer Derek Adams had a solid season in Evanston as the team’s starting punter.
Most importantly, there were no outstanding mistakes coming from any of the specialists all season long. There were no missed game-winning field goals or shanked punts that led to easy scores, which is more than many other teams in the conference could say. These contributions may not have shown up on the stats sheet, but the unit’s contributions all year long certainly deserve recognition.
The seniors’ decisions to return or not will be big for this unit in 2021, as the rest of the unit carries a lot of inexperience with them.
Charlie Kuhbander: A-
Stats: 9-for-12 FG, 27-for-27 XP, 47 long, 44 kickoffs, average 58 yards, 14 touchbacks
After a disappointing junior season for the once highly-touted recruit, Kuhbander bounced back in 2020 with the best season of his college career. The senior kicker did not miss a single extra point all year, and his only misses came from beyond 40 yards.
He came up big for the ‘Cats by being consistent from manageable distances, and although he never hit any game-winners, his reliable leg helped Northwestern win a lot of games this season. A season removed from hitting just 60% of field goals from 30-to-39 yards in 2019, Kuhbander was perfect from that range this year. He also took over kickoff duties this year, attempting 44 of them for an average of 58 yards, good for fifth-best in the conference.
On his way to earning consensus a Big Ten special teams honorable mention, Kubhander was awarded Big Ten Special Teams Player of the Week honors after Week 1, when he was a perfect 4-for-4 on extra points and 3-for-3 on field goals, including a pair of field goals from 43 yards.
Derek Adams: B+
Stats: 44 punts, average 41.8 yards, 60 long
Northwestern’s success with graduate transfer punters continued in 2020 with Derek Adams out of Kent State. Adams was the starter from the beginning, letting a total of 44 punts fly for an average of 41.8 yards, including a 60-yard bomb in the Citrus Bowl against Auburn. Thirteen of his punts fell inside the 20-yard line.
Adams didn’t punt up eye-popping numbers for the ‘Cats, but he was consistent all year long, typically giving the defense enough real estate to get stops even when he was punting out of the end zone.
His most memorable performance was against Wisconsin, when he punted 10 (!) times for an average of 37.9 yards. In that contest, he did just enough to pin Wisconsin in their own territory time and time again while letting the defense do its job in one of Northwestern’s most impressive wins of the season.
Trey Finison: Incomplete
Stats: 0-for-1 XP, 1 kickoff, 59 yards
After appearing in all 12 games as a true first-year in 2019 as Northwestern’s kickoff specialist, Finison saw playing time in just one game this season during the opener against Maryland. The sophomore missed his only extra-point opportunity and had one kickoff for 59 yards. If Kuhbander chooses not to return next season, Finison will likely step into the starting role.
Cody Gronewold: Incomplete
Stats: 1 punt, 43 yards
The junior saw playing time for the first time in a Northwestern jersey in the opener against Maryland, punting once for 43 yards. If Pat Fitzgerald & co. decide not to bring in yet another transfer at punter, the starting job could be Gronewold’s in 2021.