Gophers positional preview: Special teams

Despite a serious knee injury that cut his sophomore year short, Marcus Jones bounced back to have a productive 2013 season on special teams.

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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: Special teams

Rating (1-to-10 scale): 8

Projected starters: kicker Ryan Santoso (redshirt freshman), punter Peter Mortell (redshirt junior), kick returner Marcus Jones (senior)

Key backups: kicker Andrew Harte (redshirt freshman), kicker Justin Juenemann (redshirt freshman), kick returner Antonio Johnson (junior), kick returner Berkley Edwards (redshirt freshman)

The breakdown: After a few unsettled years at punter, Minnesota finally found its guy in Mortell, who became one of the best punters in the Big Ten in 2013. In 13 games last year, Mortell averaged 43.3 yards per punt, which was the third-most in the conference. Of his 62 punts, 21 were downed inside the 20-yard line. In addition to his punting duties, Mortell also has experience as the holder on field goals.

Santoso came to campus last year as a rather intriguing kicking prospect, in part because of his size (6-foot-6, 245 pounds). The intrigue also had to do with his kicking resume. The Pace, Fla., native won a field-goal contest in the Under Armour All-American game before arriving in Minnesota. He’ll likely take over as the team’s top kicker following the graduation of Chris Hawthorne, although Harte and Juenemann could compete for the starting job. None of those three have any college experience.

Despite a serious knee injury that cut his sophomore year short, Jones bounced back to have a productive 2013 season on special teams. As the Gophers’ top kick returner (he returned 25 kicks), Jones averaged 24.9 yards per kick return, which was tied for fifth-best in the Big Ten, and ran a kick back 99 yards for a touchdown against UNLV. Jones also returned 11 punts for 115 yards, including one he took back 65 yards for a touchdown at New Mexico State. Johnson returned just five kicks last year but could factor into the mix a bit in 2014. Edwards possesses game-changing speed and should get some reps this fall in the return game.

Gophers positional previews

Best position battle: Santoso’s spot as the top kicker is by no means guaranteed, as he has yet to attempt a kick at the Division I level. Neither, though, have Harte or Juenemann. As a prep kicker in Illinois, Harte converted 112 consecutive extra points he attempted and was 13-of-18 on field goals as a senior. He connected on a 53-yarder during the Gophers’ spring game, where Juenemann — an all-state high school kicker in Kansas — drilled a 35-yarder. Kicking drills usually don’t draw much attention during fall camp, but this year could be an exception for Minnesota with three viable options fighting for the starting job.

Best of the Big Ten: 1. Michigan State, 2. Maryland, 3. Illinois

The Spartans return senior punter Mike Sadler, who averaged 42.5 yards per punt last season. And sophomore kicker Michael Gelger was one of the best in the Big Ten as a freshman in 2013, converting 15 of 16 field goals. Macgarrett Kings Jr. averaged 10.3 yards per punt return as a sophomore and should be one of the best returners in the Big Ten in 2014.

Terps sophomore Will Likely’s 26.0 yards per kick return would have ranked him third in the Big Ten last season. The same goes for his 12.8 yards per punt return. Junior Stefon Diggs is also a dangerous return man, and kicker Brad Craddock is back after converting 21-of-25 field goals. Maryland also returns punter Nathan Renfro, who had 18 of his 75 punts downed inside the 20-yard line.

Illinois junior V’Angelo Bentley was not only the top punt returner in the Big Ten last year, but he was one of the best in the country. His 15.8 yards per punt return ranked seventh in the nation. The Illini also have a senior punter in Justin DuVernois, who ranked sixth in the conference in yards per punt (41.1) in 2013.

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