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2023 Northwestern football position reviews: Special teams

Very, very average.

X/@HunterRenner19

As Northwestern’s improbable season has officially come to a close, Inside NU has spent the last few weeks wrapping up our coverage of the 2023 football season. Today, last but not least, we discuss the special teams.

Overall Grade: C

Just over a week ago, Northwestern parted ways with Special Teams Coordinator Jeff Genyk, who had been with the team since 2018. His firing was no surprise, given David Braun’s desire to reshape his coaching staff, especially in areas where the ‘Cats found trouble in 2023. His special teams unit wasn’t a nightmare, but it sometimes became a liability for Northwestern during the season. Simply put, Genyk’s group was very average. There was nothing spectacular about either Jack Olsen or Hunter Renner, who had their respective ups and downs. Both seized starting positions after being second-in-command last season, but neither particularly shined.

In the return game, AJ Henning and Coco Azema provided a nice spark for the ‘Cats, with the Michigan transfer serving in the primary role. Among kick returners, Henning finished fifth in the Big Ten with 330 yards, while Azema finished 13th with 179 yards to his name. Henning also featured on most punt returns, even though NU only returned 11 punts all season. He struggled more on that front, finishing near the middle of the pack in the conference. While these contributions were crucial to the special teams unit as a whole, the kickers and punters will get the bulk of my attention here.

I may have been a bit generous with my running back ratings last week, so I’ll be ever so slightly more critical here. It’s very hit or miss with special teams, and Northwestern’s special teamers often missed more than they could hit. This proved especially true for Renner, who was inconsistent and left NU’s defense with poor field position a significant portion of the time. Fortunately for him, the defense proved resilient and kept opposing offenses in check, keeping Renner’s punts from becoming a highlighted concern for this ‘Cats team. Olsen also fell flat in some of the season’s most significant moments, especially late in the year. Northwestern will likely be looking toward different options at both positions next year, but let’s see how each of this season’s crucial players did.

Player Grades

Jack Olsen: B

Stats: 14-for-19 field goals, 73.6%, 47 long, 33-for-33 extra points

With the departure of Adam Stage, Olsen reclaimed the starting position that he expected to have before the 2022 season. In the role, he attempted more than double the amount of field goals as his predecessor, putting 14 of them through the goalposts. Olsen was very consistent from short range, making 100% of his extra points and only missing one field goal from shorter than 40 yards. However, he struggled beyond that range, making only four out of six between 40 and 49 yards and missing both of his attempts beyond 50. Most of those came near the end of the season when Olsen missed four field goals in Northwestern’s final three games. He missed once in each game against Purdue and Illinois and twice from long range in NU’s bowl game victory over Utah.

These numbers put Olsen — and, by default, Northwestern’s entire kicking unit — in the middle of the pack among Big Ten teams, which is not bad considering that NU attempted only ten total field goals in all of the 2022 season. These are hefty improvements, even if Olsen still falls short in certain areas and skills. Olsen gets his grade for being an average kicker who got the job done most of the time but failed to succeed at the level of a five-star prospect and the expectations that came with it. Maybe that was partly due to his past injuries, but Olsen could have been a great Northwestern special teams player. Instead, he will likely go down as one landing just slightly above average.

Hunter Renner: C-

Stats: 71 punts, 38.7 average, 54 long, four punts inside the 20

At times, Renner was undoubtedly a frustrating watch for ‘Cats fans. His punts weren’t stellar by any means, and the stat lines show such a fact. His average of 38.3 yards per punt puts Northwestern at the bottom of the conference in that category and 13th in overall punting. For a team that punted quite frequently due to inconsistent offensive play, Renner was a disappointment, failing to come up clutch and set up Northwestern’s defense with good field position. He rarely recorded punts inside the 20, only landing four during the regular season. Renner closed strong, however, equaling that total in the bowl game, in which he played a crucial role in setting the tone for Northwestern’s impeccable defensive showing.

As a slight consolation, Renner finished with the best passer rating on the team, a staggering 158.8. That singularly came from a seven-yard fake punt pass to Rod Heard II that fell short of the sticks against Rutgers, a rare success that potentially sums up Renner’s performance better than anything else. His short and inconsistent punts gave the opposition unnecessary opportunities to take advantage and put points on the board. With a new special teams coach, that must improve come next season — whether it be Renner or someone else taking the long snaps — as David Braun’s defense prepares to lose some of its bigger pieces to the NFL and the transfer portal.

Luke Akers: Incomplete

Stats: 2 punts, 42.5 average, 48 long

The senior lost his starting job last season to Hunter Renner, and saw a drastic drop in play as a result. After punting the ball 45 times last season, Akers only finished with two punts in 2023. Those came against Nebraska and Iowa, collectively averaging higher than all of Renner’s 71 punts. However, he played far too little to receive a grade here, but could potentially return next year with one remaining year of eligibility.