Badgers seek greater consistency in kicking game
This is the 10th in a series of 11 previews leading up to the Wisconsin football team's Aug. 5 start of practice.
Rating (1-to-10 scale): 8
Projected starter(s): Kicker Kyle French (redshirt junior), punter Drew Meyer (redshirt sophomore), kick returner Melvin Gordon (redshirt sophomore), kick returner Kenzel Doe (junior), punt returner Jared Abbrederis (redshirt senior)
Key backups: Kicker Jack Russell (sophomore), kicker Andrew Endicott (freshman), punter Stephen Salata (redshirt sophomore), kick returner James White (senior)
The breakdown: The kicking game was inconsistent last season, and that's one area that will need to change in 2013 if the Badgers are to win close games. Kyle French connected on 10 of 16 field-goal attempts (62.5 percent), but his season was so up and down that he briefly lost his starting spot to walk-on Jack Russell.
French ultimately earned back the starting role because Russell's struggles were even more significant — he missed both of his field-goal attempts and an extra-point try early in the season. Essentially, French was considered the better of two players performing well below the Badgers' kicking game standards and below his own. He finished the season ranked 85th out of 103 qualifying FBS kickers in field-goal conversion percentage.
When French, a redshirt junior from Menomonee Falls, Wis., entered spring practices under a new coaching staff, he had no guarantees the starting job was his. He possessed more experience, having appeared in 20 games over two seasons while connecting on 13 of 21 field goals (61.9 percent) and 64 of 67 extra-point attempts (95.5 percent). But those numbers meant nothing if he couldn't put the ball through the uprights consistently over 15 spring practices.
Midway through the spring, his hold on the No. 1 spot was tenuous at best. During one outdoor practice in the rain, he and Russell combined to miss four consecutive field goals from 42 yards away. French rallied to make his next two kicks from 35 and 37 yards out, and it seemed to turn the tide in his favor.
During Wisconsin's spring game, French made field goal tries of 27 and 24 yards and drilled both of his extra-point attempts while playing with the starting unit.
"I think it's always good to get him in that position to have to kick in front of fans," Badgers coach Gary Andersen said after the spring game. "Now, he's obviously done that, and he's done it on the biggest stages that there are. But he has been consistent. And he has had a good spring.
"The numbers would prove that if you tracked them all the way through, which we do, he's kicked the ball well. He had a bad day in the rain, and that's something we can learn from, and he'll learn from. We need to help to make him better in those spots, and he needs to work on that also, and he will. It was good for him to go out there today and put a couple through."
French said he understood his lead on Russell was by no means assured as fall practices approached. Russell did not earn reps with the starters during the spring game because his accuracy had waned, but his leg strength is excellent. As a high school senior in 2011, he set the WIAA Division 2 state championship record by drilling a 48-yard field goal.
To instill even more belief in players and coaches, both kickers will need to perform better than they did last season, when Wisconsin converted on just 55.6 percent of its field-goal attempts (10 of 18). The Badgers tied for 118th out of 124 FBS teams in field-goal conversion percentage.
At punter, Wisconsin appears set with Drew Meyer, who turned out to be one of the most reliable players on the Badgers' entire team last season. Meyer punted 80 times for an average of 41.5 yards per kick. Consider that Brad Nortman, one of the best punters to come through Wisconsin's program, averaged 42.2 yards per kick as a senior in 2011. Nortman also only needed to punt 46 times because Wisconsin's offense was so explosive, which means Meyer was more valuable in many respects.
Meyer ranked 49th nationally in punting average and fifth among Big Ten punters. You have to figure that with another year of experience, those numbers will continue to climb.
Wisconsin's kick returning situation is excellent because the Badgers return four players with experience, and any of them are capable of breaking a big runback for a touchdown.
Last season, Melvin Gordon and Kenzel Doe each returned seven kicks, with Doe proving to be a tad better. Doe averaged 27.9 yards per kick return, while Gordon averaged 21.6 yards. James White also returned six kicks for an average of 19.0 yards.
White and Gordon are both going to see increased reps at running back with Montee Ball gone to graduation, so now it becomes a question of how much the coaching staff wants to use each player in other facets of the game. In 2011, for example, Jared Abbrederis returned 28 kicks and averaged 24.6 yards per return. But his role at wide receiver became even more important in 2012, and he was taken off kick returns entirely.
You would think Abbrederis should, however, maintain his role as the team's go-to punt returner. He returned 17 punts last season, although he averaged just 6.5 yards per return. Those numbers were down significantly from 2011, when he averaged 15.8 yards per return. It could be because the players on the field weren't as good or because Abbrederis was simply exhausted from drawing double-teams at wide receiver the rest of the game.
If the coaching staff chooses to go in a different direction, Doe would provide a nice option. Last season, Doe returned eight kicks and averaged 12.4 yards per return. Of course, Badgers coach Gary Andersen should remember Doe quite well. It was Doe's 82-yard punt return for a touchdown against Utah State that flipped that game around and helped Wisconsin come back for a 16-14 victory.
Best position battle: Considering the majority of these spots appear locked down as fall camp begins, the most intriguing battle should be in the kicking game. Kyle French and Jack Russell spent the entire 2012 season in a fight for playing time. At one point, the coaching staff opted to have French on field goals and Russell on kickoffs. Both players need to develop more consistency.
Incoming freshman Andrew Endicott could be another player to watch in the kicking game because his niche could be as a kickoff specialist. Of his 45 kickoffs in high school, 38 resulted in touchbacks. His average kickoff was 65.6 yards. As a means of comparison, French averaged 63.5 yards per kickoff and Russell 57.8 yards last season. Endicott also made 33 of 35 extra points, including his final 25 tries of the season.
Best of the Big Ten: 1. Northwestern; 2. Michigan; 3. Iowa
Northwestern cracks the top spot here because the Wildcats have perhaps the Big Ten's best kicker (Jeff Budzien) and most dangerous return man (Venric Mark). In 2012, Budzien made 19 of 20 field goals and drilled all 50 of his extra-point attempts. He finished second in the Big Ten among kickers in scoring. Mark, meanwhile, averaged 18.7 yards per punt return with two touchdowns and 19.8 yards per kick return.
Michigan's Will Hagerup returns for his senior season after leading the Big Ten in punting average (45.0 yards per kick) last season. Hagerup's services weren't needed often. He punted just 33 times, while the average number of punts for the nine other kickers ranked among the conference's top 10 was 67.3. Still, he proved quite valuable. The Wolverines also return Dennis Norfleet, who ranked second in the Big Ten in kick return average (23.6 yards) last season.
Iowa's Jordan Cotton averaged 28.2 yards per kick return as a junior in 2012, which led all Big Ten kick returners. Hawkeyes kicker Mike Meyer also is back for his senior season. Meyer converted 17 of 21 field-goal attempts last season (81 percent).
Wisconsin's return specialists rival anybody in the Big Ten, and the Badgers are solid at punter as well. But they drop down a couple notches because the kicking game needs to improve.
Kicker Kyle French says: "The thing with Jack and I is we're always going to compete. Jack's a fantastic kicker. It just kind of speaks volumes about him how he just kind of came in here as a walk-on freshman and was able to compete with me like that.
"I think I had a great spring this spring, so I think as of right now I'm with the ones. He's with the twos. But you never know what'll happen come fall. I think overall I just had a really good spring. I'm glad I could prove myself to my coaches and teammates."
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