This is the tenth in a series of 11 previews leading up to the Minnesota football team’s Aug. 1 start of practice.
TODAY’S POSITION: SPECIALISTS
Rating (1-to-10 scale): 5
Projected starters: Punter Christian Eldred (junior), kicker Chris Hawthorne (senior), kick returner K.J. Maye (sophomore), punt returner Marcus Jones (junior), long snapper Jake Filkins (senior)
Key backups: Punter Dan Orseske (redshirt senior), punter Peter Mortell (redshirt sophomore), kicker/punter Ryan Santoso (freshman).
The breakdown: Minnesota is rather unsettled on special teams at most positions, aside from long snapper. The Gophers have four punters who each have a legitimate shot at starting. Meanwhile, the kicking competition is open as fall camp begins.
A big challenge for Minnesota will be to replace kick returner Troy Stoudermire, who graduated as the NCAA’s all-time leading kick return yards leader. Maye, who made the move from running back to wide receiver, is the most likely option to return kicks. He had eight kick returns as a freshman last year for an average of 22.2 yards. Jones also returned a few kicks but may be better suited as a punt returner.
Eldred held the starting punting job nearly all season after beating out Orseske in camp last fall. The Gophers ranked dead last in net yards per punt at 34.4. That will certainly need to improve, and Orseske could get another chance at the starting job. He punted 57 times as a sophomore in 2011 but did not see the field at all last year.
The Gophers will also have to replace Jordan Wettstein, who was inconsistent (63.6 percent on field goals) but handled nearly all the field goal, extra point and kickoff duties. He had 27 touchbacks out of his 54 kickoffs. Like Orseske, Hawthorne did not see much time last year after receiving a decent amount of playing time in 2011. During his sophomore year (he transferred from North Carolina State), Hawthorne made six of nine field goals. A few kickers could challenge him in camp, including freshman Ryan Santoso, a 6-foot-5, 260 pound kicker/punter.
Best position battle: There are a few battles to watch on special teams, but punter may be the most intriguing. As recently as Tuesday, head coach Jerry Kill sounded as if he has no idea who his starting punter will be when the Gophers open the season on Aug. 29 against UNLV.
While Eldred — a native of Australia — punted almost the entire 2012 season, that by no means guarantees he’ll be the starting punter. Eldred’s numbers were unimpressive; his average of 38.1 yards per punt was ninth among Big Ten punters.
Having four legitimate punting options in camp should help boost the competition. Peter Mortell did not punt at all as a redshirt freshman last year but he did play on special teams as the holder — a job he’ll likely have again this year. Mortell took part in two fake field goal attempts last season, rushing once for seven yards and passing to quarterback Philip Nelson on the other.
Santoso has the size of a tight end but comes to Minnesota as a heralded high school kicker. Scout.com had him ranked as the eighth-best high school kicking prospect. As a punter, he averaged 39.3 yards per punt in high school.
Best of the Big Ten: 1. Northwestern 2. Michigan 3. Iowa
Northwestern has arguably the best kicker in the Big Ten in Jeff Budzien, and it also has a dangerous return man in running back Venric Mark. Last year, Budzien converted 19 of 20 field goals and was a perfect 50-for-50 on extra points to finish fourth among all players in the conference in scoring. He was named the Bakken-Anderson Big Ten Co-Kicker of the Year and was first-team All-Big Ten. Mark averaged 19.8 yards per kick return and an impressive 21.5 yards per punt return, including two touchdowns. He should be one of the top return men in the conference this year.
Michigan’s Will Hagerup was the top punter in the conference a year ago, averaging 45.0 yards per punt. He’s back for his senior season as the Big Ten’s top punter. The Wolverines also boast one of the top kick returners in the conference in sophomore Dennis Norfleet, who was second in kick returns with a 23.6 yards average last year. His 827 kick return yards were tops among all Big Ten players.
Iowa senior Jordan Cotton led all Big Ten kick returners last year by averaging 28.2 yards per return. His longest was a 92-yard touchdown. Kicker Mike Meyer returns for his senior season after hitting 81 percent (17-for-21) of his field goals last year.
Head coach Jerry Kill: “With Mortell, Christian Eldred, Orseske and Santoso, those punters, that’s four guys we’ve got to find out who’s going to be the guy that can punt that ball on a consistent basis and try to put them under pressure as much as we can to make it like a game day to figure that out. But there’s nothing like a game day. We’ve got competition there, at kicker with Chris Hawthorne, (Andrew) Harte’s coming in, a young man from Illinois. … I think those things are all yet to be determined in camp. Those kids will all get an opportunity.”