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2022 Northwestern football position previews: Special teams

The world needs to take note of Ray Niro III.

University of California Los Angeles vs Louisiana State University Set Number: X163784 TK1


Returning Starters: Ray Niro III (Sr.), Andrew Clair (Gr.), Coco Azema (Jr.), Xander Mueller (Jr.), Charlie Mangieri (Gr.), Tyler Haskins (Jr.), Greyson Metz (Jr.)

Key Losses: Derek Adams (Graduation), Charlie Kuhbander (Graduation), Peter Snodgrass (Graduation), Trey Finison (Transfer), Jake Genyk (Graduation), Chris Bergin (Graduation), Troy Hudetz (Graduation), J.J. Jefferson (Graduation)

Returners: Jack Olsen (Jr.), Hunter Renner (Jr.), Will Halkyard (Jr.), Jacob Tabibian (So.)

Newcomers: Luke Akers (Jr. transfer, UCLA), Adam Stage (Gr. transfer, North Dakota)

On the surface, it would appear that Northwestern’s special teams unit was poor last year based on the play of kicker Charlie Kuhbander alone. The grad student was a perfect 21 for 21 on extra points but went a dismal 6 for 13 on field goal attempts, the worst mark for any FBS kicker to attempt over 10 field goals.

Aside from kicking, though, the Wildcats’ special teams unit was relatively solid. Punter Derek Adams averaged 41.52 yards per boot, good for 68th in the country. In fact, Adams concluded his lengthy collegiate career as the all-time leader in punting yards.

Even when the ‘Cats were unsuccessful in certain facets — such as kickoff return (127th) and punt return average allowed (T-84th) — they excelled in others, like punt return average (7th) and kickoff return average allowed (12th). That, combined with having a -2 blocked kicks/punts differential, led NU to earn the 41st-highest Pro Football Focus grade for special teams in FBS last year.

Moreover, coordinator Jeff Genyk saw productive play out of his gunners and other personnel, many of whom will be retained this season. While not being utilized much on offense, Niro III was a terrific all-around special teamer, garnering the sixth-highest PFF grade among those seeing 200 or more snaps on that side of the ball.

Although stability exists in terms of kick and punt coverage, new faces will emerge at kicker, punter and long snapper.

Key Player:

Jack Olsen

When Olsen transferred to Northwestern before last year, many expected the ex-Spartan to vie for the starting kicking job. Even when Kuhbander missed routinely, Pat Fitzgerald opted not to bring Olsen in.

Though the three-star may have had to wait his turn, the opportunity is directly in front of Olsen for the taking, especially with Finison transferring to LSU. Olsen is not a lock to start at kicker with NU adding the veteran Stage, but the junior should be viewed as the presumptive favorite to be the Wildcats’ first new kicker since 2017.

Ultimately, Olsen has an undeniable chance to provide much-needed stability to one of the ‘Cats’ worst areas from 2021.

Big Question:

Who wins the punting competition?

In line with the kicking corps, Fitzgerald does not yet have a solidified answer as to who will serve as Adams’ successor.

The Wildcats added transfer Akers, son of longtime NFL kicker David Akers, who is listed as a punter. Akers had 58 punts for an average of 43.1 yards in his two years at UCLA.

At the same time, Fitzgerald noted the emergence of Renner, who is yet to punt in his college career. The battle for punting duties appears to be whittled down to the two with Jake Genyk moving on.

Depth Chart

2022 Projected Special Teams Depth Chart

Position First String Second String
Position First String Second String
K Jack Olsen Adam Stage
P Luke Akers Hunter Renner
LS Will Halkyard Declan Carr
KR Ray Niro III Andrew Clair
PR Ray Niro III Bryce Kirtz