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Wisconsin’s specialists move on without Rafael Gaglianone for 2019

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Good news! It can’t be worse than last year.

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NCAA Football: Pinstripe Bowl-Wisconsin vs Miami Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Welp, “The Great Alex Hornibrook Experience” is finally over in Madison and we can all move on fr ... what’s that? My special teams preview? My bad everyone. I forgot there were other positions on the team. Well, at least one specialist position is going to look very different this year as my Brazilian son, Rafael Gaglianone, has graduated and there looks to be competition for the kicker spot.

Punter, kickoff specialist and long snapper could all be the same as last year and who even knows what will happen in the return game. Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst never returns my DMs on Instagram, so I guess we’ll have to wait until media are allowed to watch practice this spring to find out who he is favoring.

Overall, the special teams unit is going to have to perform much better than they did last year where they finished below 90th nationally in just about every major statistical category. As they say, hope springs eternal especially when talking about college kids kicking footballs. At least I think they say that.

Presumed 2019 spring roster for Wisconsin’s specialists/returners

Placekicker

  • Collin Larsh, redshirt sophomore; did not play in 2018
  • Zach Hintze, redshirt senior; 0-for-1 on field goal attempts, missed 62-yard field goal at Northwestern.

Punter

  • Anthony Lotti, senior (eight games); 38.6 yards per punt in 32 attempts; 14 inside 20-yard line.
  • Connor Allen, redshirt senior (13 games); 37.5 yards per punt in 22 attempts; eight inside 20-yard line.
  • Conor Schlichting, redshirt sophomore

Kickoff specialist

  • Hintze (13 games); 66 kickoffs, 54 touchbacks; 63.7 yards per kickoff.
  • Larsh

Long snapper

  • Adam Bay, junior (13 games)
  • Josh Bernhagen, redshirt junior; did not play in 2018

Kick returner

  • Aron Cruickshank, sophomore (13 games); 26 returns, 20.5 yards per return, long of 34.
  • Others, too!

Punt returner

  • Jack Dunn, redshirt junior; 17 punts, 5.5 yards per return, long of 15.
  • Others, too!

Check out our discussion about the specialists with the Wisconsin State Journal’s Jason Galloway on a recent edition of Bucky’s 5th Podcast. Be sure to follow on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher and pretty much everywhere where you listen to your favorite podcasts!

Who to watch

Seeing who settles in as the primary kick returner and punt returner will be interesting to me. Dunn will have a difficult time breaking into the wide receiver depth chart so it stands to reason that he’ll still be the starting punt returner, but his average of 5.5 yards per return isn’t exactly electric and other options should be explored during an extended period of practice. Like maybe when the weather is finally starting to get nice again?

Cruickshank, on the other hand, may see his role on offense increase to a point that he won’t always be handling kick returner duties. Kendric Pryor was listed as the No. 2 kickoff returner behind Cruickshank on the depth chart last season.

Could true freshman wideout Stephan Bracey be an option when he enters during the summer? He looks fast and could be in the mold of Cruickshank. Inside linebacker Chris Orr returned a kick for 15 yards last year. With an entire offseason of practice could he get a look? Is this why the first week of spring practice isn’t open to the media? Is Paul Chryst operating some sort of linebacker-to-kick-returner conversion camp? FREE CHRIS ORR! LET HIM TACKLE PEOPLE!

Well, now that we’ve gone completely off the rails let me say this: a little more dynamism in the return game would be a huge boost to an offense that can sometimes (all the time?) be one dimensional. Field position wins games in the punt-happy Big Ten and if the Badgers can make Kirk Ferentz pay for punting on 4th-and-2 from Wisconsin’s 39-yard line, it would make me a happy man.

Why fans should pay attention to this position this spring

Fans should pay attention to the placekicking position this spring. Record setting place kicker Rafael Gaglianone is gone. He has samba’d off into the night for the last time as a Badger and leaves large dancing shoes to fill. It could assumed that Larsh could be the frontrunner for starting placekicker, as he was No. 2 on the depth chart behind Gaglianone. As seen in an article last August by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Jeff Potrykus, he displayed some impressive showings during 2018 fall camp and said he felt “comfortable” in the range around 55 yards.

Don’t count out Hintze though! He is also a “big leg” haver with his kickoffs and attempted the only field goal that Gaglianone didn’t last year. He missed it, which isn’t a great sign until you realize it was a 62-yard attempt at the end of the half in Northwestern’s high school ass stadium. We don’t hold that against you, Zach.

Field goal kicking is important to the success of any football team. It is the fabled “third phase” of the three phases that all coaches want to dominate. A team like Wisconsin, who will be breaking in a new starting quarterback and a number of new starters on defense, cannot afford to leave points on the field. I will just copy and paste what I wrote about field goals in B5Q’s “way-too-early” preview:

Missed field goals can be real momentum-changers and Gaglianone’s misses last year were often killer. The miss against BYU, the miss to start the Minnesota massacre, and the miss to start the Purdue game were all crucial.

Now, I don’t think that Wisconsin beats Minnesota if they go up 3-0 in that game, but a missed field goal sure does set the tone for a Gophers team looking for any advantage to reverse a 14-year losing streak.

Kickers are basically the quarterbacks of the special teams unit, so when you are tired of dissecting every single pass Graham Mertz (MERTZ! MERTZ! MERTZ!) attempts this spring, take a peek at how Larsh and Hintze are booming the ball.