MADISON — Redshirt sophomore P.J. Rosowski has made quite the impact so far in the 2016 season.
He was the starting punter in Wisconsin’s upset win over LSU on Sept. 3, but he’s made an even bigger splash as the team’s kickoff specialist through three games.
Five of Rosowski’s six kickoffs registered as touchbacks in Wisconsin’s 23-17 win against Georgia State on Saturday. The performance even garnered unprompted praise from head coach Paul Chryst after the game.
Rosowski’s emergence has been a welcomed surprise for UW’s special teams units, as 13 of his 19 kickoffs (68.4 percent) have forced opponents to start at their own 25-yard line. The Stoughton, Wis., native has worked with special teams coach Chris Haering to further refine their objectives through the first quarter of the season.
“We’re just trying to mix it up, give teams different looks so they don’t always know what’s coming,” Rosowski said. “I think that’s the easiest things for return teams is if they know what you’re going to do, they can set up a good blocking scheme.
“Then you don’t know what’s going to happen, so really mixing up our kicks, spotting our kicks, and when we get them, touchbacks are huge.”
Rosowski won the specialist competition from senior Andrew Endicott, who held the regular duties for the better part of two seasons. Last season when Endicott dealt with hamstring issues, the walk-on recorded eight kickoffs over four games and averaged 62.5 yards per attempt.
Though specialists may not receive the recognition they deserve, there’s a lot of work and repetition to have one’s foot connect perfectly with the ball on every touch.
“Coming from the spring, I knew I could hit touchbacks on a regular basis, but it was going to take a lot of work,” Rosowski said. “Spring [camp] was kind of inconsistent with hitting touchbacks and then kind of mis-hitting the ball. The biggest thing is making sure every kick counts, and making sure I do the same thing every kick to make it consistent.
It’s still very early in the season, and there have been rules changes for kickoffs, but consider the following:
Back in 1999, Vitaly Pisetsky recorded 78 kickoffs for Wisconsin Big Ten championship and Rose Bowl-winning squad. Though the number of touchbacks isn’t found in Wisconsin’s archived statistics or in its 2000 media guide, the average starting field position for UW opponents that season was the 21-yard line. Seventy-five percent of his kickoffs contributed to opponents at or inside their 20-yard line. During Pisetsky’s sophomore year in 1997, 26 of 63 kickoffs were touchbacks (41.2 percent).
According to that same 2000 media guide, another prominent kicker contributed to holding opponents deep in their territory. That would be John Hall during the 1996 season (average starting field position of 20.7 yards), whose canon of a leg went onto the NFL from 1997-2006. Only 43.7 percent of Hall’s kickoffs were returned, according to UW’s 1996 football media guide.
Rosowski’s leg strength may not necessarily be in the same category as Hall’s or Pisetsky’s, and there have been modifications to this phase of special teams. The NCAA also moved kickoff placements to the 35-yard line in 2012, resulting in a substantial increase in touchbacks that season.
The change also modified the starting field position for the returning team after kickoffs out to the 25-yard line. The average starting field position for LSU, Akron and Georgia State combined has been their own 24-yard line when Rosowski has kicked off this season.
With his kickoffs and Wisconsin’s mostly stout coverage unit, opponents have started beyond the 25 only twice through three games—both by Akron. The Zips’ first return last weekend went for 29 yards out to their 36-yard line, and an out-of-bounds penalty allowed the MAC program to start at its own 35-yard line in the second quarter.
Three of opponents’ six returns haven’t yielded starting field positions beyond their 20-yard line. On Saturday, Kendrick Dorn returned one to the 11. Against LSU, Derrius Guice attempted to return one out of the end zone, but only got to the 17.
Despite the rule changes, it’s an impressive start to the season for Rosowski and the kickoff coverage units. UW currently ranks third in the nation in kickoff return defense, allowing only 12.67 yards per return, and as noted by Fox Sports Wiscosnin’s Dave Heller, Rosowski himself ranks 19th in the nation in touchback percentage.
It’s a continued string of success in the third phase of the game for UW. In Haering’s first season as special teams coach in 2015, Wisconsin ranked fifth in the nation in kickoff coverage — allowing only 16.6 yards per game. The year prior, Endicott and the Badgers ranked third in the conference in opponents’ average starting field position (25.1 yard-line).
Winning the field-position battle is a factor not lost on the kickoff specialist.
“I think that’s a huge play to either start off the game, start off the second half—it’s definitely a tone-setter, so we preach field position a lot,” Rosowski said. “I know we had a team meeting about it as a team earlier in the year, and coach Haering and a lot of other guys really preach it. Whatever I can do to make the job easier for the defense, and then in terms of offense, it just really helps out the whole team.”
- Wisconsin didn’t commit a penalty on Saturday. The last time that happened was Nov. 15, 1997, against Michigan.
- Saturday’s captains were outside linebacker Vince Biegel, running back Dare Ogunbowale and inside linebacker Leon Jacobs.
- The win against Georgia State was Wisconsin’s 38th consecutive against non-conference foes at Camp Randall Stadium, now the sixth-longest streak in FBS history.
- Through three games, Wisconsin has committed only eight penalties.
- The Badgers have outgained opponents 441-13 and held a time-of-possession edge of 39:40 to 5:20 in the first quarter of the first three games this season.
- Defensive end Conor Sheehy’s field goal block was the first since Jake Keefer’s against Ohio State in the 2014 Big Ten championship .
- Senior cornerback Sojourn Shelton now has 29 career pass breakups after registering two against the Panthers. That moves him into a tie for fourth all-time in school history with Jack Ikegwuonu and one other famous defensive back. Who? Three-time All-American Jim Leonhard, Shelton’s current position coach.