Special teams can be the most maddening thing about college football. On a campus of 40,000 kids, you can't find one that can punt a football more than 35 yards every time?!? Once I consider the fact that I could probably never do that anywhere, let alone in a stadium with 80,000 screaming people while 11 enormous dudes are tasked with killing you -- I tend to soften my BAN PUNTING stance.
First of all, it would never go ever well in a conference that includes Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz -- and second of all, sometimes winning the field position battle is a crucial element to winning the overall game.
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 and dancing sensation Rafael Gaglianone, a marked upgrade from previous seasons -- while the veteran punter, junior Drew Meyer, turned in the worst season of his career. Gaglianone missed all of spring practice with a back injury, but he's back and hopefully better than ever. He was also named to the preseason Groza Award list and has spent much off the offseason sending fire tweets.
Mustache city with the coach himself @alfybasila pic.twitter.com/HxFrPq4RvD— Rafael Gaglianone (@rafagaglianone) May 26, 2015
@CoreyClement_6 only took you about a year to follow back too, i made it to the big league— Rafael Gaglianone (@rafagaglianone) July 16, 2015
They say money cant buy happiness, but it can buy you a jet ski... Have you ever seen anyone sad on a jet ski? pic.twitter.com/dLnUMDjFOG— Rafael Gaglianone (@rafagaglianone) April 3, 2015
And also retweeting handsome geniuses:
Good morning. There are 100 days left until Badger football season. I'm growing my mustache in solidarity with @rafagaglianone until then.— Rich Hammie Quan (@drewhamm5) May 28, 2015
The return game was about the same from 2013 to 2014 with wide receiver Kenzel Doe as the primary returner: maddening muffs, occasionally providing glimpses of hope, but mostly a non-factor. Heading into 2015, it was thought that true freshman tailback Jordan Stevenson could be the dynamic, field position-altering return man the Badgers were looking for, but uhhh, well, you know how that turned out. Another true freshman, wide receiver Andrew James, is a youngster that returned some kicks in high school, so he might be an option. The more likely options are soft-handed senior wide receiver Alex Erickson and speedy defensive back née wide receiver, sophomore Natrell Jamerson, if spring practices are to be believed.
The returner spot is really the only position of intrigue heading into fall camp and is one to watch closely, so you make sure to scream the correct name when they are streaking down the sideline to the end zone.
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 isn't the sexiest position group to preview, but just rewatch that Gaglianone GIF a few more times and read on in this 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 in 2012. He averaged 41.5 yards per punt -- good for fifth in the conference. He attempted the most punts in the Big Ten that season, so no small sample sizes here. He was a consensus All-Big Ten honorable mention selection, 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, 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.
If he can't, there's always next year.