Now that the season is over and the transfer portal is pure chaos, it’s a good time to look back and review each position group. Next on the list: special teams.
Overall Grade: C
Jeff Genyk’s group was about as average of a group as possible. The Wildcats were solid in kick coverage, ranking fourth in the nation in kickoff return defense, giving up 14.85 yards a return. However, NU struggled to flip the field in the punt game, ranking 104th in the nation in net punting for the year with an average of 36.81 yards a game. Northwestern also blocked three kicks and one punt for the season. In the return game, the ‘Cats were among the worst in the country. The Purple and White ranked 119th in kick return yards, posting an average of 16.73 a return; furthermore, Northwestern was even worse in punt return, ranking in the bottom five in the nation in punt return yards, returning punts barely over two yards.
In terms of scoring points, Northwestern did not attempt to go for three a lot of the time. NU was in the bottom third in field goal attempts, only trying to split the goal posts 10 times on the season. The ‘Cats did not even attempt a field goal more than 40 yards all season. Coach Fitzgerald is not afraid to risk it on fourth down, but a lack of faith that NU could connect on long kicks may have played a factor in that. Could the Wildcats look to add a kicker from the transfer portal? Absolutely, but for now, let’s take a look at what each specialist did this past season.
Luke Akers: B
Stats: 45 punts, 41.02 avg, 56 long, seven 50+-yard punts, 14 punts inside the 20
The UCLA transfer took over the job this year and started strong in Ireland, helping seal the ‘Cats’ only win of the season when he pinned the Huskers inside their own five with two minutes left to play. Akers’ rugby style of punting allows him to create better bounces for the Wildcats and pad his stats. While Akers’ style of punting does allow for better rolls, the hangtime on the ball is not as much as is seen with a traditional spiral punt. Akers has out-kicked his coverage before, as his ball tends to be more of a line drive. It will be interesting to see how Akers changes his style to close the small holes in his game, but without a doubt, Akers is a key factor for this ‘Cats unit next season.
Adam Stage: B-
Stats: 7-for-9 field goals, 77.8%, 35 long, 17-for-17 extra points
After a 2021 campaign in which Northwestern’s kicker was statistically the worst in the country, it was hard not to improve from there. Enter Adam Stage, who nailed all of his extra points and didn’t miss a field goal over the latter 10 games of the season. Stage only attempted nine field goals on the year, whether that be the struggles of the offense to get him in position or the deficit being too large that the ‘Cats have to go for it on fourth down. Nonetheless, Stage was generally a reliable face who converted in the few opportunities he was given to kick.
Hunter Renner: C+
Stats: 12 punts, 36.92 avg, 49 long, four punts inside the 20
In the four games that Renner saw the field, half of them were in horrid weather conditions. Renner did a good job with the cards he was dealt. Renner was much more a traditional-style punter, and Fitzgerald trusted him to do the job in the weather. It will be interesting if Renner takes on a larger role for his senior campaign.
Will Halkyard: A
We here at Inside NU love long snappers, so we’re going to show our appreciation for Halkyard. He was absolutely solid in getting the ball back to the punter, especially in the elements. He is clearly the favorite to start once again in 2023.
Jack Olsen: Incomplete
Stats: 0-for-1 field goal, 1-for-1 extra point
Once thought to be the starter entering the season, Olsen battled injury all year and only made one game appearance. The junior only had one field goal attempt all season, where he missed a chip shot against Wisconsin as time expired. With Adam Stage graduating, the former five-star Michigan State transfer has a prime opportunity to win the job next season.