Big Ten special-teams spotlight, Part I

March, 9, 2010
3/09/10
9:00
AM ET
I'm man enough to admit mistakes, so here's one: I haven't given special teams nearly enough attention in the blog. As we saw throughout the 2009 regular season and bowl season, the kicking game often makes the difference in the final outcome.

Consider this a fresh start.

Let's take a look at who's back, who's gone and how the special-teams units look for each Big Ten squad in 2010. We'll start with the first six teams (by alphabetical order) and examine the other five later Tuesday.

ILLINOIS

  • Kicker: Derek Dimke and Matt Eller both return. Dimke went 5-for-5 on field-goal attempts (all beyond 30 yards) after taking over for Eller, who struggled in his second year, connecting on only 4 of 11 attempts.
  • Punter: Senior Anthony Santella returns after ranking sixth in the league in punting average (41.3 ypp).
  • Kick return: Troy Pollard is back, but Arrelious Benn and A.J. Jenkins both depart. Illinois finished ninth in the league last fall in this category (19.3 ypr).
  • Punt return: Jarred Fayson and Jack Ramsey both come back. Illinois ranked last in the league in punt returns in 2009 (4.2 ypr)
  • Quick thoughts: Illinois needs to upgrade its kicking game to have any shot at turning things around in 2010. The return game really struggled (114th nationally in punt returns, 105th in kick returns), and kickoff coverage wasn't good, either (90th). Dimke provided a nice spark late in the season, but Illinois has too much talent not to make a bigger splash in returns.
INDIANA

  • Kicker: Sophomore Nick Freeland returns after connecting on 14 of 25 attempts in 2009. Redshirt freshman Mitch Ewald and senior Nick Ford also are in the mix here.
  • Punter: Junior Chris Hagerup is back after finishing eighth in the league in punting average (40.5 ypp).
  • Kick return: Ray Fisher, who led the Big Ten in kick return average (37.4 ypr), is gone. Wide receiver Tandon Doss, who led IU with 25 runbacks, returns for his junior season.
  • Punt return: Indiana loses Fisher but brings back Doss. The Hoosiers finished second in the Big Ten in punt returns last fall (10.3 ypr).
  • Quick thoughts: Fisher is a major loss in the return game, but Doss certainly has the ability to fill the void. Indiana must figure things out on field goals, as it ranked last in the Big Ten in percentage last fall (.560). The offense should be pretty dynamic in 2010, so any help the kicking game provides would be huge. Indiana covered punts well but needs to improve on kickoffs after finishing 93rd nationally (23.2 ypr).
IOWA

  • Kicker: Daniel Murray handled all of Iowa's field goals in 2009, connecting on 19 of 26 attempts. Junior Trent Mossbrucker also returns.
  • Punter: Senior Ryan Donahue will contend for All-Big Ten honors this fall after averaging 40.9 yards per punt in 2009.
  • Kick return: Senior Derrell Johnson-Koulianos is back after finishing second in the league in kick return average (31.5 ypr). Running back Brandon Wegher and wideout Paul Chaney Jr. also are back.
  • Punt return: Senior Colin Sandeman is back, and he'll compete with Chaney and possibly others for the top job.
  • Quick thoughts: Special teams should be a major strength for the Hawkeyes in 2010. Johnson-Koulianos showed against Ohio State how dangerous he can be on kickoff returns. Donahue and Murray are two of the league's more experienced specialists. Iowa's coverage units fared well in 2009, ranking ninth nationally in kick coverage (18.4 ypr) and 21st in punt coverage (5.7 ypr).
MICHIGAN

  • Kicker: The Wolverines must replace Jason Olesnavage, who connected on 11 of 15 attempts in 2009.
  • Punter: Michigan suffers a big loss here as Ray Guy Award finalist Zoltan Mesko departs. Mesko led the Big Ten in punting average (44.5 ypp).
  • Kick return: Wideout Darryl Stonum is back after averaging 25.7 yards per runback with a touchdown in 2009. Michigan's No. 2 option, Martavious Odoms, also returns for 2010. The Wolverines ranked third in the Big Ten in kick returns last fall (23.8 ypr).
  • Punt return: Junior Hemingway is back after leading U-M in punt returns (8.6 ypr). Odoms had six punt returns last fall, though Michigan could look to its younger players here.
  • Quick thoughts: Replacing Mesko won't be easy, and Olesnavage quietly turned in a strong season, especially from long range. Incoming punter recruit Will Hagerup will step into the fire right away for the Wolverines. Kick returns should be a strength, and Michigan did a decent job on coverage last year, ranking 20th in punt coverage and third in the Big Ten in net kickoff coverage.
MICHIGAN STATE

  • Kicker: The Spartans suffer a big loss here, as first-team All-Big Ten selection Brett Swenson departs. Swenson went 19-for-22 on field goals last fall and led the Big Ten in kick scoring (101 points).
  • Punter: Senior Aaron Bates returns after finishing fifth in the league in punting average (41.6 ypp).
  • Kick return: Wide receiver Keshawn Martin is back after becoming arguably the Big Ten's most dangerous return man last fall. Michigan State needs a No. 2 option here.
  • Punt return: Martin did a nice job on punt returns in 2009, averaging 7.4 yards per runback.
  • Quick thoughts: Swenson leaves a major void at kicker, as Dan Conroy and Kevin Muma compete to replace the back-to-back All-Big Ten selection. Martin really blossomed on returns during Big Ten play and could be a huge X-factor for Michigan State this fall. The Spartans' coverage teams were average in 2009. If Conroy and/or Muma can hold their own on field goals, special teams could be a real strength for Mark Dantonio's team.
MINNESOTA

  • Kicker: Eric Ellestad is back for his senior year after connecting on 13 of 17 field-goal attempts, with all the makes coming from within 40 yards.
  • Punter: Minnesota loses Blake Haudan, who had a very solid 2009 season, ranking third in the league in average (42.6 ypp). Sophomore Dan Orseske will step in this fall.
  • Kick return: Wideout Troy Stoudermire is back after once again getting a ton of action on returns, recording 43 runbacks for 1,057 yards (24.6 ypr). Duane Bennett and Hayo Carpenter are possible No. 2 options.
  • Punt return: Sophomore wideout Bryant Allen is back after averaging 12.2 yards on six runbacks last fall. Minnesota led the Big Ten in punt return average (14.7 ypr), although the Gophers also had the fewest opportunities (9).
  • Quick thoughts: Haudan was a very solid punter in 2009, so Orseske will have some big shoes to fill. Stoudermire and Allen are fine options on returns, and Ellestad did a nice job on the kicks he should make. Minnesota really struggled on kickoff coverage, ranking 102nd nationally (24.1 ypr). If the offense starts slow again this fall, Minnesota will need to be sharp in the kicking game.

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BIG TEN SCOREBOARD

Monday, 12/22
Saturday, 12/20
Tuesday, 12/23
Wednesday, 12/24
Friday, 12/26
Saturday, 12/27
Monday, 12/29
Tuesday, 12/30
Wednesday, 12/31
Thursday, 1/1
Friday, 1/2
Saturday, 1/3
Sunday, 1/4
Monday, 1/12