- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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We're taking snapshots of each position group with every Big Ten team entering the spring. The series wraps up with the specialists.
Illinois:The Illini might not be exceptional in the kicking game, but they're in better shape than they were when coach Tim Beckman arrived. Punter Justin DuVernois returns after a solid junior season, while Taylor Zalewski looks for a bit more consistency in his second full season as the placekicker. Zalewski made 12 of 17 field-goal attempts last fall. The return game is the real plus, as V'Angelo Bentley provides a major threat, especially on punt returns.
Indiana: Like Illinois, Indiana brings back a dynamic returner in Shane Wynn, who averaged 14 yards on punt run-backs despite limited work. Punter Erich Toth also is back for his third season as the starter. Toth placed 18 of 52 attempts inside the opponent's 20-yard line. IU suffers a big loss at kicker as Mitch Ewald, the team's career field goals and field-goal percentage leader, departs. Aaron Del Grosso and Griffin Oakes will compete at kicker, and Jake Shake (shake and bake!) could enter the mix this summer.
Iowa: Here's another Big Ten team that looks very strong on returns, as Iowa boasts the Big Ten's most dynamic tandem in Kevonte Martin-Manley (punts) and Jordan Cotton (kickoffs). Martin-Manley had two punt-return touchdowns in 2013. Punter Connor Kornbrath ranked near the bottom of the Big Ten in average, but placed 27 of 65 attempts inside the opponent's 20. Iowa loses kicker Mike Meyer, a four-year starter. Junior Marshall Koehn seems likely to step up, but could be pushed by incoming freshman Mick Ellis and others.
Maryland: Notice a theme so far? Most Big Ten teams are strong in the return game, and Maryland is no exception. If Stefon Diggs returns at full strength from his leg injury, he'll be a dangerous man with punts and kickoffs in his hands. Will Likely performed extremely well in Diggs' spot, averaging 26 yards on kickoff returns and 12.8 yards on punt returns. Maryland brings back an excellent kicker in Brad Craddock (21-for-25 on field goals last year), and punter Nathan Renfro enters his third season as the starter.
Michigan: Matt Wile has done a bit of everything for Michigan, but could settle into the starting placekicker role this fall. Wile handled kicking duties late last season and also served as Michigan's punter after Will Hagerup was suspended for the season. Hagerup, the Big Ten's punter of the year in 2012, will reclaim the role if he can avoid off-field problems that have surfaced throughout his career. Wile then could focus on kicking, as Kenny Allen is the only other option there. Michigan is still waiting for big things from kick returner Dennis Norfleet and must find someone to handle punts. Top recruit Jabrill Peppers could help.
Michigan State: Special teams once again should be a strength for MSU, which returns All-Big Ten punter Mike Sadler, a Ray Guy award semifinalist who will contend for All-America honors in 2014. Kicker Michael Geiger also is back after connecting on 15 of 16 field-goal attempts as a true freshman. Macgarrett Kings Jr. and Andre Sims Jr. both put up good numbers on punt returns. Michigan State had by far the fewest kick returns (18) in the Big Ten last year and will look for a boost from R.J. Shelton and others.
Minnesota: After an above-average year on special teams in 2013, Minnesota again should be good in the third phase. Punter Peter Mortell didn't get as many accolades as Sadler or Purdue's Cody Webster, but he had an excellent sophomore season, averaging 43.3 yards per attempt with 15 of 50 yards or longer. Marcus Jones is a major threat on returns after bringing back both a kickoff and a punt for touchdowns last fall. Redshirt freshman kickers Ryan Santoso and Andrew Harte will compete as the Gophers lose Chris Hawthorne.
Nebraska: The Huskers are looking for some upgrades on special teams, particularly on punt returns, as Nebraska ranked 123rd in the FBS last fall. Primary returner Jordan Westerkamp is back, but he'll face some competition. Nebraska brings back punter Sam Foltz, who had a solid freshman season, averaging 41.6 yards per boot. Mauro Bondi is set to step in at kicker as Pat Smith departs. If Bondi struggles, incoming freshman Kris Brown could get a look this summer. Kenny Bell, who led the Big Ten in kick return average (26.5 yards per return), is back.
Northwestern: The Wildcats lose a huge piece in Jeff Budzien, named the Big Ten's top kicker in each of his final two seasons. Hunter Niswander can handle both kickoffs and punts but seems likely to slide into Budzien's spot. Northwestern's punting was a mess in 2013, ranking 118th nationally in net average (33.2 ypp). Brandon Williams departs and Chris Gradone or Niswander will take over. The big news is Northwestern brings back Venric Mark , an All-America punt returner in 2012. Primary kick returner Matt Harris is back after a solid freshman season.
Ohio State: Aussie, Aussie, Aussie. Indeed, the Aussie is back at punter as Cameron Johnston returns after an excellent debut season (I refuse to call a 21-year-old a freshman). Ohio State hopes for similar results from another first-year specialist in kicker Sean Nuernberger, an early enrollee expected to step in for the departing Drew Basil. Sophomore Dontre Wilson will continue to have a big role on returns after handling kickoffs last year. Ohio State must replace Corey Brown on punt returns and could look to redshirt freshman Jalin Marshall or true freshmen Curtis Samuel and Johnnie Dixon.
Penn State: The kicking game continues to be an area of concern.Sam Ficken owns the team record for consecutive field goals (15) and started strong last season but ended with just 15 of 23 conversions, including four misses inside 40 yards. Penn State needs a new punter after losing Alex Butterworth, and will turn to Chris Gulla. Jesse Della Valle did a good job on punt returns, but Penn State needs a boost on kickoffs after finishing last in the league (19.1 yards per return). The Lions could stick with Geno Lewis or look for a newcomer such as De'Andre Thompkins to emerge. PSU also must shore up its coverage units.
Purdue: As if the Boilers didn't have enough to address on offense and defense, the kicking game needs attention. Punter Cody Webster finished his spectacular career with All-America honors, and the Boilers finished second nationally in net punting (41.7 yards per punt). Incoming freshman Austin McGehee will take over for Webster. Paul Griggs and Thomas Meadows continue to work at kicker, as Griggs made only 50 percent of his attempts (6 of 12) last season. The kick return game is strong with Akeem Hunt and Raheem Mostert, but Purdue must replace punt returner Ricardo Allen. B.J. Knauf could be a good fit there.
Rutgers: The kicking game historically is a strength for Rutgers, which has a knack for blocking kicks and pulling off fakes. Rutgers loses a productive piece in punter Nick Marsh, who also handled kickoffs. The Scarlet Knights will turn to Joseph Roth as their replacement. Kicker Kyle Federico finished the season well, particularly in the Pinstripe Bowl, and returns for his junior season. Rutgers has a major weapon on returns in Janarion Grant, who brought back both a punt and a kickoff for a touchdown during his freshman season.
Wisconsin: The kicking game has held back Wisconsin in the past, so it's definitely an area to watch during the offseason. Kicker Jack Russell converted 9 of 13 field-goal attempts after taking over for Kyle French. He'll try to hold off incoming freshman Rafael Gaglianone. Andrew Endicott, who handled kickoffs last fall, also returns. Wisconsin is looking for more from punter Drew Meyer, who averaged just 38.6 yards per attempt in 2013. Top returner Kenzel Doe is back and should handle both punts and kickoffs, although Wisconsin could look to others for help, such as newcomers Serge Trezy and Natrell Jamerson.
More position breakdowns