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Friday, February 24, 2012
Big East position rankings: Special teams

By Andrea Adelson

We have come to the final group in the 2011 postseason position rankings: special teams. This one is all encompassing -- kickers, punters, returners, and team coverage -- which has made it quite the task to evaluate as one group. Some teams had returns that excelled and kickers that were so-so. Some had great kickers but a so-so return game.

I tried to give equal weight to all parts. In the end, I took the rankings in several special-teams categories and used an average ranking to help determine these. Special weight was given to game-changing plays as well.

1. Cincinnati. The Bearcats ranked in the top two in four of the five statistical categories I used to evaluate special teams as a whole. The only area lacking was field goals, but I thought overall Tony Miliano had a decent year for a true freshman, even considering his missed kick against West Virginia. Ralph David Abernathy IV emerged as a dynamite kickoff man, and Pat O'Donnell was the best punter in the Big East again. Kickoff coverage was solid as well. Preseason ranking: 5.

2. UConn. Nick Williams averaged just 5.6 yards a return on punts. He was not particularly dynamic on kickoff returns, either, ranking No. 4 in the Big East after going into the season as one of the top returners in the league. UConn was one of two Big East teams without a kickoff return for a touchdown. But still, the Huskies were solid in every other category. Dave Teggart once again was the Big East first-team kicker, and Cole Wagner averaged 41.1 yards a punt. Preseason ranking: 1.

Tavon Austin
Tavon Austin had two kickoff returns for touchdowns last season.
3. West Virginia. Tavon Austin was hands down the best returner in the Big East this season, and one of the best in the nation. But since this is an evaluation of special teams as a whole, everything is taken into account. West Virginia had the worst punting situation in the Big East, and ranked last in kickoff coverage. There were several critical blocked field goals as well. Special teams absolutely improved as the year went on, and some players made big plays -- Eain Smith comes to mind. But Austin alone wasn't enough to elevate the group higher. Preseason ranking: 7.

4. Rutgers. Once again, the Scarlet Knights were highly effective at blocking kicks -- a staple under coach Greg Schiano. Jeremy Deering was solid in the kickoff return game as well. But San San Te had the worst field goal percentage in the Big East (64.5 percent), and kickoff coverage ranked No. 7 in the conference. Rutgers only had an opportunity to return 16 punts last season, averaging about 6 yards a return. Preseason ranking: 6.

5. Pitt. The Panthers lost their punter and field goal kicker from a year ago and did perhaps better than expected in special teams overall. Punter Matt Yoklic was second in the league in punts, though Kevin Harper did struggle at times with his field goals. Losing Cameron Saddler really hurt the punt return game as well. Preseason ranking: 8.

6. Syracuse. Ross Krautman led the Big East in field goal percentage (78.9) but he only had 19 attempts on the season, second fewest in the Big East. Punt returns were essentially nonexistent -- with only 12 attempts for an average of 3.1 yards a return. Jeremiah Kobena was a nice addition at kickoff returner, but the Orange still ranked No. 6 in the Big East in that category and kickoff return coverage as well. Preseason ranking: 4.

7. Louisville. Chris Philpott had a disappointing season, ranking No. 7 in the league in field goal percentage (66.7). He and Josh Bleser averaged 37.3 yards a punt. Punt returning ranked No. 7 in the Big East as well, and aside from Adrian Bushell's 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, that category was just average for the Cardinals. Preseason ranking: 3.

8. USF. I think the Bulls were the biggest disappointment in this category. Lindsey Lamar, who was the first-team Big East selection at returner last year, had zero this year and ranked No. 9 in the league in kickoff return average. His average was down some six yards from last season. When Terrence Mitchell got hurt and missed the second half of the season, no one was dynamic at punt returner, either. Maikon Bonani ranked No. 3 in field goal percentage but fairly or not is going to be remembered for missing a field goal that would have beaten Rutgers, and eventually gotten the Bulls bowl eligible. Preseason ranking: 2.