The Wisconsin Badgers' special teams were a mixed bag in 2014. The kicking game was a question mark heading into 2014, and coming off a horrid 2013 a question mark -- was a positive development. The punting game was supposed to be manned by a veteran leg.
The question mark kicking game turned into Brazilian freshman dancing sensation Rafael Gaglianone, a marked upgrade from previous seasons -- and the veteran punter, Drew Meyer, turned in the worst season of his career.
The return game was about the same from 2013 to 2014 with Kenzel Doe as the primary returner: maddening muffs, occasionally providing glimpses of hope, but mostly a non-factor. The coverage unit was decidedly average, below average even, ranking 81st in average opponent starting field position according to Football Outsiders.
That is a somewhat dour recap of Wisconsin's special teams from 2014, but let's forget all about last year (except for this) and move on to what will happen in 2015 under new special teams coach Chris Haering. The starters are all, presumably, the same in the kicking game, but the Badgers will be looking for a new return man with the graduation of Doe. Special teams aren't the sexiest position group to preview, but just rewatch that Gaglianone GIF a few more times and read on in this way too early preview of the 2015 Badgers special teams.
Kicker: Rafael Gaglianone (59-of-61 extra points, 19-of-22 field goals, long of 51, 2 kickoffs, 0 touchbacks), Andrew Endicott (90 kickoffs, 28 touchbacks, average opponents starting field position: 24-yard line)
Punter: Drew Meyer (54 punts, 2,020 yards, 37.4 average, long of 57, 18 downed inside 20 yard line), Bart Houston (7 punts, 243 yards, 34.7 average, long of 52, 1 downed inside 20-yard line)
Returner: Kenzel Doe (28 kick returns, 623 yards, 22.2 average, long of 38; 24 punt returns, 253 yards, 10.5 average, long of 40), A.J. Jordan (1 punt return, 24 yards), Natrell Jamerson (1 kick return, 21 yards)
Kicker: Gaglianone (SO), Endicott (JR), Jack Russell (SR)
Punter: Meyer (RS SR), P.J. Rosowski (RS FR)
Returner: Jordan (RS SR), Jamerson (SO), Alex Erickson (SR), Corey Clement (JR) (both listed as primary backups for Outback Bowl)
Kicker: Zach Hintze (St. Mary's Springs, Fond du Lac, Wis.)
Punter: Connor Allen (Brookfield East, Brookfield, Wis.)
Returner: Andrew James (Cardinal Gibbons, Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.) returned some kicks in high school so...maybe?
X-Factor: Drew Meyer, or maybe a different starting punter?
Meyer was one of the finer punters in the Big Ten Conference his freshman year. He averaged 41.5 yards per punt -- good for fifth in the conference. He attempted the most punts in the Big Ten in 2012, so no small sample sizes here. He was consensus All-Big Ten honorable mention too! A bright start to what looked to be a promising career. However, his numbers dipped his sophomore year and continued to drop last year as well.
Field position is extremely important during a college football game, and the Badgers defense would sometimes start in a disadvantaged position due to the punting game last year. Wisconsin opponents started at the 30-yard line on average, which as we mentioned above was 81st in the nation, and 10.9 percent of opponents' drives started at midfield or on Wisconsin's side of the field which was 68th in the nation. If we're being generous, those are average numbers.
Meyer needs to find his freshman year form this offseason or risk losing his job to one of the two younger punters (or hell, even Houston). If he can get back to those numbers -- a full four yards better per punt -- Meyer could once again be counted as one of the better punters in the conference and help a rebuilding defense with better starting field position.
Early prediction for starters: Rafael Gaglianone, Drew Meyer and Andrew James
Wisconsin specialists have been prone to big freshman seasons then spiral downwards in the following years. I'm predicting the opposite for Gaglianone. While Clement is an excellent running back, he's no Melvin Gordon, so there will probably be a few more drives that sputter inside the 40-yard line compared to last season. Throw in the fact that the offense is entirely new, and I can see the Badgers attempting more field goals than last year. Gaglianone already was the highest scoring kicker in the conference (116 points) last year and attempted the second most field goals in the conference, but one could see him leading the conference in attempts and scoring over 125 points this year and making 90 percent of his field goals.
Meyer, if he keeps his job, has to improve on his punting numbers from last year but I don't think it will be by much. I see Meyer continuing to struggle, but kicking well enough where he is considered a "push." Which I think is just as good for a punter as being a positive.
The return game will account for at least one touchdown, after accounting for zero in 2014. Whether it's freshman James or a more established player, someone returning a kick for the Badgers will find the end zone.