Today is the final installment of this year's season preview in which I look at every area of the team on the field. As we've learned, special teams can be a critical element. Coach J.B. Gibboney can coach up kickers and punters, but the coverage units can be infuriating at times. Also, we can run a surprise onside kick with the best of them.
This year we have a different look on special teams with the departure of the immortal Kevin Ballinger and Carson Wiggs. Gone are the days where a 70-yard field goal is legitimately in play. A true freshman will very likely be handling placekicks, meaning it will be nerve-wracking until we establish consistency.
Without further ado, let's see the key specialists:
Punter - Cody Webster - Jr. - 42.9 YPK average, 11 Inside 20
Placekicker - Paul Griggs - Fr.
Kickoff Specialist - Thomas Meadows - Fr.
Kick Returners - Raheem Mostert - So. - 33.5 YPR, 1 TD, 945 all-purpose yards
Akeem Hunt - So. - 24.7 YPR, long of 42
Punt Returner - TBD
Long Snapper - Jesse Schmitt - So.
Two areas that are locked down are Webster and Mostert, who are among the best in the Big Ten and even nationally at what they do. Mostert was the leading kickoff return man in the country in 2011, but the new kickoff rules (kickoffs are now from the 35, touchbacks go to the 25) could take him out of the game somewhat as a weapon. That's a very bad thing. Mostert was an absolute threat to score on every return. Since only one return per game does not follow an opponent's score his ability to immediately erase a touchdown is huge. Hunt wasn't exactly awful as the alternative.
Webster was a little off at times and even had Wiggs handling the shorter punts during the year. His average was slightly lower than it was in 2010 when he won the job as a true freshman. For the most part he does his job with little fanfare. Bobbled snaps have never been a problem and only Gibboney's ridiculous blocking scheme that allows an up-man to launch a defender higher for a block have been issues.
The third area that is pretty solid is long snapper, where Schmitt split time with Ballinger last season. Schmitt handled punts while Ballinger did placement snaps. If you see the name Jesse Schmitt and first say "who?" it means he is doing his job. Generally, the long snapper is known only to blogging nerds like me. His name is known to the general fandom usually in one way: if he screws up (see the 1998 Alamo Bowl). Like John Finch and Ballinger before him, Schmitt has been generally flawless. Will he start a blog like Ballinger or be as entertaining on Twitter as Finch? That remains to be seen.
The rest of the kicking duties look like they will be split amongst two true freshmen. Meadows will likely handle kickoff duties with the goal of regularly getting them in the end zone. Griggs is likely on placements. Neither has the distance of Wiggs, but few people on earth do. Griggs was the rare three-star recruit as a kicker and was rated No. 3 in his class nationally at his position. He's got a nice leg with a 57-yard FG on his record last season. Meadows reached the end zone on 70% of his kicks last year. As a bonus, Meadows could also punt if needed, and may take over there in 2014.
Finally, the punt returning job is up for grabs with the graduation of Waynelle Gravesande. Freshman B.J. Knauf, Rob Henry, Ricardo Allen, Robert Gregory, Josh Johnson, and Danny Anthrop have been mentioned here. Gravesande had steady hands, but our punt return game has not been a threat in years. It would be nice to have it be effective again.
Robert Harris - Jr.
Sam McCartney - Fr. (RS)
John Bednar - Fr.
These three are on the roster but I don't expect to see any of them on the field. Harris was been the understudy to Wiggs for some time but is going to have to either beat Griggs straight up or hope he struggles for playing time. McCartney is a townie from West Lafayette that walked on last year and made the Dean's list as a student. As for Bednar, I know absolutely nothing about him except that he has walked on from Valparaiso and he is listed as a long snapper.
Special teams top coverage guys:
Chris Quinn - Sr. - 4 tackles
Zack Heiniger - Sr.
Joe Gilliam - So. - 7 tackles
Brandon Cottom - So. - 3 tackles
Jules Williams - So.
Someone has to make those tackles on kickoffs and punts, right? The coverage units are generally made up of reserves and top walk-ons that earn their way to the field. Gilliam made most of his hay last year on kickoff coverage. Heiniger is a former walk-on that has found a spot to play at. Cottom was also an effective blocker and tackler on kickoffs before injuring his knee.
Then there is Williams. I found his name on the roster just today in researching this article. He was specifically asked to join the team after the coaching staff saw him on the club rugby team. He probably thinks everyone is a bunch of wusses for playing in pads and helmets, but I found it interesting they asked him specifically to come out. Rugby has a lot of open field action like you find on kickoffs, so I am merely speculating he was asked specifically for that purpose.