This is the tenth in a series of 11 previews leading up to the Wisconsin football team’s Aug. 4 start of practice. You can find the entire series here.
Today’s position: Specialists
Rating (1-to-10 scale): 7
Projected starters: kicker Jack Russell (junior), punter Drew Meyer (redshirt junior), kick returner Kenzel Doe (senior)
Key backups: kicker Andrew Endicott (sophomore), kicker Rafael Gaglianone (freshman), punter Brett Nethery (redshirt sophomore)
The breakdown: If Wisconsin is to win a Big Ten championship and put together a truly special season, the Badgers will have to improve on special teams — particularly in the kicking game.
Most Badgers fans know that kicking struggles have plagued the team for a few years now, and questions persist about just how much better Wisconsin will be in 2014. Last season, Wisconsin made 14 of 21 field-goal attempts, which ranked 10th out of 12 Big Ten teams in field-goal accuracy rate (66.7 percent). Jack Russell took over for Kyle French midway through the season, and Russell performed admirably by making nine of his final 11 field-goal attempts.
Still, Russell has a ways to go to inspire confidence among the coaching staff. He made 2 of 4 field-goal attempts in April during Wisconsin’s spring game, hitting from 41 and 30 yards but missing from 36 and 44 yards. Some of his struggles had to do with the team introducing a new holder during the spring game, but the inconsistency continues to cause concern. Russell very well could be pushed by incoming freshman Rafael Gaglianone.
Wisconsin does have one of the most reliable punters in the Big Ten with Drew Meyer, and that boosts the overall rating of the Badgers’ specialists. Meyer’s average yardage numbers decreased slightly last season, from 41.5 to 38.6, but some of that had to do with field position when he handled those punts. UW moved the ball much better in 2013, which gave Meyer less room to work with on occasion. He also punted 53 times compared to 80 in 2012.
Kenzel Doe is the team’s best kickoff and punt return man, though he’ll likely need some help in at least one of those areas if he sees more playing time at receiver. Doe handled 16 punt returns a year ago, but he struggled to consistently field punts and gave way to Jared Abbrederis late in the season. Doe did handle 20 kickoffs, including a mesmerizing 91-yard touchdown return against South Carolina in the Capital One Bowl. Perhaps one of the incoming freshmen can provide Doe with some relief in the return game.
Best position battle: While Doe and Meyer appear locks to be the top guys at their respective positions, Russell could still be in for a fight during fall camp. If there is a challenger, it could be Gaglianone, a 6-foot, 220-pounder who is originally from Sao Paulo, Brazil. As a high school senior for Baylor School in Tennessee last season, Gaglianone made 10 of his 14 field-goal attempts, with a long of 57 yards.
Best of the Big Ten: 1.Michigan State; 2. Maryland; 3. Iowa
Michigan State tops the list because it returns key players in all facets of special teams. Punter Mike Sadler, a three-year letterwinner, enters his fourth season as the team’s starting punter. His career average of 42.4 yards per punt ranks sixth in program history. Kicker Michael Geiger set a single-season record as a freshman last year by drilling 93.8 percent of his field goal tries (15 of 16), which ranked first in the Big Ten and tied for fourth in the FBS. On punt returns, Michigan State will rely on Macgarrett Kings Jr. and Andre Sims Jr. The duo combined to handle 35 kickoffs a year ago, while R.J. Shelton handled nine kick returns for an average of 22.1 yards.
Maryland will have two talented options in the kick return game with Stefon Diggs and Will Likely. Diggs handled 12 kick returns for an average of 23.4 yards before suffering a season-ending injury. Likely filled in for him well and averaged 26.0 yards per return on 28 tries. Likely also returned 16 punts, including one for a touchdown. Brad Craddock returns at kicker after drilling 21 of 25 field goals last season. At punter, Nathan Renfro is back after averaging 40.8 yards per punt.
Iowa comes in third based largely on the returning tandem of Kevonte Martin-Manley and Jordan Cotton. Martin-Manley returned two punts for touchdowns last season, including one for 83 yards. Cotton handled 29 kickoffs and averaged 25.2 yards per return, including one for 96 yards. Though four-year starter Mike Meyer is gone at kicker, junior Marshall Koehn seems likely to fill his spot. At punter, Connor Kornbrath returns after averaging 40.0 yards per punt.
Jack Russell says: "I have to have the confidence that I’m going to be the guy. If I don’t, then I shouldn’t be out there. I’m just going to keep working on my field-goal technique throughout the summer and just be ready for fall camp."