In 2011, the Badgers’ special teams were full of positives and negatives. On the positive side, both PK Philip Welch and P Brad Nortman were parts of that unit that fans did not have to worry about. A field goal from 40 yards out? Not a problem. Pinning the opposing offense inside their own 20 yard line on a punt? Not a problem. For four years, the Badger faithful did not have to worry about that part of the game. 2012 is a different story. The negatives were mainly punt and kickoff coverage.
Here is the Special Teams depth chart heading into 2012.
Punters: Drew Meyer (So.); Stephen Salata (Fr.)
Filling Nortman’s shoes will be a big undertaking this season. He was more than just a punter who averaged 42 yards per punt throughout his career. He pinned opponents inside the 20 yard line time and time again. He also converted 2 fake punts for first downs, one of which led to a win against Iowa in 2010. This year, walk-on redshirt freshman Drew Meyer will take the reign as starting punter. Hopefully the fans won’t have to worry that much since Meyer won the Wisconsin state’s top punter award and averaged 40.4 yards per punt. Meyer does have big shoes to fill and hopes to make a seamless transition.
Place Kickers: Kyle French (So.); Jack Russell (Fr.)
For the first few games last season, PK Kyle French took over for Welch while he was nursing an injury. He played fairly well and was good to get him accustomed to real game situations. He converted on 3-of-5 field goals and 26-of-27 extra points. During fall camp, it was widely assumed that French would be the starting kicker. However, at the close of fall camp, Bielema said that the starting PK job is still up for grabs with freshman walk-on Jack Russell vying for the position, even though French was finally listed as the starter. Though it’s evident that French is the starter, it’s still a little concerning that French did not do enough to win the job outright. Hopefully that will be ironed out once non-conference play is over. French will also handle kickoff duties with Russell backing him up.
Punt Returners: Jared Abbrederis (Jr.); Kenzel Doe (So.)
The return game will be strong again in 2012. In 2011, Jared Abbrederis returned 20 punts for 315 yards and a touchdown, averaging 15.8 ypr, good for third nationally. Aside from being a top wide receiver in the conference, former walk-on and now scholarship player Abbrederis is one of the best in the country at returning punts. He reminds of Jim Leonhard back when I was in Madison – former walk-on turned scholarship player, star player, and always a threat as a punt returner.
Backing Abbrederis up is Kenzel Doe, a sophomore who saw action in 9 games last season. Recruited as wide receiver, he only stands at 5’8” and 170. He has the hands to be a punt returner and the speed to side step the defense during a return.
Kickoff Returners: Jared Abbrederis (Jr.); James White (Jr.)
This will also be a position of strength for the Badgers this season as both returners are back. Abbrederis will be working double and triple duty yet again. “Abby” returned 28 kickoffs for 686 yards in 2011, averaging 24.6 ypr in 2011. He is a solid kick returner, but I worry that the Badgers are using him too much and are running the risk of him getting injured which would be devastating to the passing game.
Standing next to Abbrederis is James White. White, of course, is the #2 RB and could start virtually anywhere else in the country, but also serves as our second kickoff returner. In 2010, White had 17 returns for 329 yards, followed by 15 returns for 315 yards in 2011. White is more than capable of being the starter here as well, but both him and Abbrederis are a formidable tandem that can give the offense great field position at any time.
Long Snapper: James McGuire (So.); Connor Udelhoven (Fr.)
Holder: Stephen Salata (Fr.); Drew Meyer (So.)
For fans, these positions are largely forgotten about in Special Teams play, let alone when talking about a team in general. But someone has to do it, right Ray Finkle? Kyle Wojta was the other player for the past 3 seasons who assured Badger fans that we do not have worry about our kicking game. Always dependable (even with an ACL tear), Wojta also has to be replaced. McGuire hopes to follow in Wojta’s path for the next few seasons.
Special Teams Coverage
Ah, saved the most concerning part of the unit for last! In 2011, the Badgers’ Special Teams coverage was horrendous. It was more evident in the bigger games against Michigan State, Ohio State and Oregon. Punt protection was not much of an issue late in the season as was kickoff coverage. Missed tackles really hurt the Badgers all season long, but they paid the price in their 3 losses last year. Bielema brought in Eddie Faulkner to hopefully shore that unit moving forward. Let’s pray for a better showing in 2012.