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2021 Northwestern Football Position Reviews: Special Teams

Charlie Kuhbander’s swan song had far too many sour notes.

NCAA Football: Iowa at Northwestern Quinn Harris-USA TODAY Sports

With the dumpster fire that was Northwestern’s 2021 season in rear view, we take a look at how each of the position groups performed in the 3-9 season. Next up: the specialists.

Overall Grade: C

One of the catalysts for Northwestern’s unparalleled success in 2020 was the play of its special teams unit, a bunch that fared consistently well and was buoyed by Charlie Kuhbander and Derek Adams. Although Kuhbander and Adams both manned their kicking and punting positions, respectively, 2021 took a significant detour.

Kuhbander did little to lift a flailing football team, as his multiplicity of missed kicks killed off promising drives and exacerbated low point totals. At the same time, Adams was a mainstay at punter, posting 11 boots of over 50 yards in his last season in Evanston.

All in all, the ‘Cats weren’t outright terrible on special teams. Northwestern blocked a kick of its own but also yielded two blocked kicks and one deflected punt. Further, NU surrendered just 17.04 yards per kick return, a figure that slots in at 12th nationally, though the ‘Cats’ average of 15.11 yards on kick returns was 127th.

Aside from Kuhbander, Fitzgerald’s special teams unit was solid. Factoring in the kicker’s play, however, produces a much more grim outlook.

Player Grades

Charlie Kuhbander: F

Stats: 6-for-13 field goals, 21-for-21 extra points, 47 long, 35 kickoffs, 59.26 average, seven touchbacks

Point blank, Kuhbander was one of the worst kickers in college football this season.

After a promising 2020 campaign in which he made 75% of his field goals and didn’t miss an extra point, the graduate student’s struggles became apparent right from the get-go, as he missed both of his field goal attempts against Michigan State on opening night.

With a minimum of 10 field goal attempts, Kuhbander’s 46.2 conversion rate on field goals was the lowest in the nation. Moreover, his 54.5 Pro Football Focus (PFF) grade was the third-worst in the nation. In fact, each time that Kuhbander would line up a kick, Northwestern fans frequently expected it to be errant, even informing opposing fans in away stadiums that Kuhbander would not convert.

The ‘Cats had deficiencies at nearly every position, so Kuhbander alone was not a scapegoat for the team’s woes. Even then, NU supporters could not wrap their heads around the fact that Pat Fitzgerald continued to trot out Kuhbander despite the veteran’s disastrous performance.

His career in purple and white over, Kuhbander leaves Evanston second in career points scored, as his 265 surpassed Brian Gowins (262). Other marks that Kuhbander set include sitting at fourth in career field goals made (43), second in extra point percentage (98.6%) and tied for first in PATs made (136).

Derek Adams: B

Stats: 58 punts, 41.5 average, 58 long, 16 punts inside the 20, zero touchbacks

In his second season with the Wildcats, Adams maintained his steady play despite a higher workload.

For stretches, Adams legitimately seemed to be one of Fitzgerald’s best players. Against Ohio and at Nebraska, Adams averaged 47.25 and 48.25 yards per punt, respectively. At the same time, the graduate student was suboptimal against Iowa and Illinois, games in which his punting average was below 38 yards.

Believe it or not, Adams is actually the all-time leader in total punting yards since 2000, as his 14,546 yards collected in six years sit atop the punting pantheon.

Trey Finison: Incomplete

Stats: 0-0 field goals, 1-1 extra points, three kickoffs, 59 average, one touchback

Despite Kuhbander’s struggles, Finison did not see the field with regularity. The junior was occasionally utilized for kickoffs but played in a combined five matchups in two seasons, redshirting in 2021.

Although the ‘Cats will be seeking a new primary kicker in 2022, Finison elected to enter the transfer portal as a graduate student with three years of eligibility. He has yet to announce a commitment.

Jack Olsen: Incomplete

Stats: 0-0 field goals, 0-0 extra points, one kickoff, 58 yards, zero touchbacks

In May, Olsen announced that he would be departing Michigan State and joining the Wildcats. However, the Wheaton, Illinois native was effectively Fitzgerald’s third-string kicker.

With Kuhbander graduating and Finison finding a new home, Olsen – a former five-star prospect — is in line to be NU’s main man in 2022.

Raymond Niro III: A-

Stats: 10 kick returns, 15.9 average, 24 long, five punt returns, 20.6 average, 36 long, 11 tackles, one block

There were multiple players that operated as returners and core special teams players for the Wildcats this season, but the quintessential – and most impressive – special teamer on the squad was Niro.

Niro flashed his skill on both sides of the ball, whether that was breaking off a 36-yard punt return against Indiana State, making a key stop or even blocking a punt against Iowa.

Beyond the basic box score, Niro earned an 89.9 special teams grade from PFF, good for sixth among players that saw action or 200 or more special teams snaps. Moreover, Niro’s special teams grade was the highest mark by any Wildcat in an overall (offense, defense, special teams) category.

Entering his senior campaign, Niro has emerged as a legitimate special teams ace for Fitzgerald and special teams coordinator Jeff Genyk.