Key losses: Cody Gronewold (Sr.)
Returners: Charlie Kuhbander (Graduate Student), Trey Finison (Jr.), Derek Adams (Graduate Student), Hunter Renner (So.), Jake Genyk (Jr.), Peter Snodgrass (Sr.), William Halkyard (So.)
Newcomers: Jack Olsen (So.), Jake Tabibian (Fr.)
Probably the best thing that can be said about Northwestern’s special teams in 2020 is that not a lot in particular was said throughout the course of the year. Similar to an offensive line, most of the discourse is usually about their shortcomings if they’re notably hurting the team. Silence around the special teams usually means they’re fine. Not great, not bad, just fine.
Starting kicker Charlie Kuhbander went 9-for-12 on field goals and hit all 27 of his extra points while also taking over on kickoffs for Trey Finison following the first game of the season against Maryland.
As far as punting goes, senior Derek Adams handled duties with 44 punts on the season and an average of 41.8 yards per punt, a marked improvement from 2019 where Northwestern’s two punters finished with averages of 38.3 and 36.3 yards per boot.
Due to having to struggle through COVID-hampered seasons in 2020, the NCAA gave student-athletes the option to use an extra year of eligibility, an opportunity both Kuhbander and Adams are taking advantage of by returning to Northwestern as graduate students.
As far as kick and punt returners go, Northwestern is going to need some fresh faces as both Kyric McGowan and Riley Lees, who handled those duties in 2020, are gone. Coco Azema took two kickoffs back last season and has the athletic tools necessary for that role. Additionally, Berkeley Holman and JJ Jefferson also saw opportunities as punt returners back in 2019, so expect two of those three to take up those mantles this fall for the newest Wildcats’ team.
On June 13, 2016, Northwestern fans received the good news that their team had just received a commitment from the eighth overall kicker (per 247 Sports) in that year’s high school football class as Kuhbander out of Springboro, Ohio, announced that he was going to be a Wildcat.
Five years and four seasons later, Kuhbander is still slated to be kicking field goals and extra points for NU in 2021, and throughout his career he’s been consistent. Not necessarily in his game-to-game and kick-to-kick performance, but in what onlookers can expect from him on a yearly basis.
In fact, in all four of his collegiate seasons, he’s either missed three or four field goals in total, two numbers that seem representative of the general perception around Kuhbander — a perfectly fine kicker, but not a top tier one. For his career he’s 37-for-51 on field goals, and that 72.5% is just slightly below average for the Division One level. Not detrimental in any sense, but nothing to write home about. He doesn’t have particularly deep range, and NU wasn’t willing to let him test it from too deep, leading to some middling volume and a lot of punts and/or fourth down attempts from near midfield for the ‘Cats.
Whether or not Kuhbander can increase his range in order to receive more confidence from Pat Fitzgerald and thus increase his attempts will be probably the biggest key in Northwestern’s special teams elevating themselves from standard to elite status in 2021.
Could Jack Olsen take over later in the year if Kuhbander struggles early on?
While Kuhbander came to Northwestern pegged as a high caliber kicking prospect, Olsen exceeds that slightly in terms of class ranking, as 247 ranked him as the fourth best kicker in the 2020 class when he committed to Michigan State. Of course, Olsen has now transferred to NU and seems to be the future scoring leg of the team following Kuhbander’s departure.
Given Kuhbander’s experience and acceptable level of play, he most definitely will start the season and would have to perform pretty poorly to be at risk of losing the starting job, but crazier things have happened. A couple of botched field goals can cost teams close games (important considering Northwestern is the king of low-scoring, close games), and should Fitzgerald and Co. get frustrated past a certain point, don’t be too shocked if they call on Olsen to see if the younger man in the room has what’s needed to serve as Northwestern’s starting kicker as early as 2021.