- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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Here's the second half of my look at special teams in the Big Ten in 2010. For Part I, click here.
Kicker: Second-team All-Big Ten selection Stefan Demos returns after connecting on 18 of 25 field goal attempts in 2009.
Punter: Demos also has handled the punting duties for Northwestern the last two seasons, although it's not his strong suit.
Punt return: Brendan Smith and Andrew Brewer both depart.
Quick thoughts: Special teams have cost Northwestern key games in recent years and continue to be a priority for head coach Pat Fitzgerald. Despite Demos' Outback Bowl struggles, he remains a very solid option on field goals. Northwestern would be well served by identifying a punter to lighten Demos' load, and redshirt freshman Brandon Williams is an option. Simmons provides a good threat on kick returns when healthy, but NU must identify a few options for punt returns. Incoming freshman Venric Mark could be a factor there. The punt and kickoff coverage teams were average in 2009 and could use a boost.
Kicker: Aaron Pettrey departs, but Devin Barclay, whose kick against Iowa sent Ohio State to the Rose Bowl, will be back.
Punter: Jon Thoma departs after finishing 10th in the league in average (37.9 ypp) last fall. Sophomore Ben Buchanan has a big leg and will step in.
Punt return: Small leaves a pretty big void here after averaging 8.3 yards on a league-high 33 attempts last season.
Quick thoughts: Jim Tressel's teams always will be strong in the kicking game, although there are some key spots to fill in 2010. Barclay did a really nice job in relief of Pettrey last fall, but whether he can provide the same long-range threat as Pettrey remains to be seen. Small is a big loss on both return teams, and it will be interesting to see who steps into his spot. Running back Brandon Saine and wideout DeVier Posey both are possibilities. Ohio State covered punts well last fall but finished a surprising 51st nationally in kickoff coverage (21.2 ypr) with a touchdown allowed against Iowa.
Kicker: Collin Wagner is back after an excellent Capital One Bowl performance. He connected on 15 of 22 field goal attempts last fall.
Punter: Second-team All-Big Ten selection Jeremy Boone departs after averaging 43.3 yards per punt in 2009. Ryan Breen's decision to leave the team creates some uncertainty here.
Quick thoughts: Penn State was surprisingly mediocre on special teams in 2009, and the kicking game should be a focal point this spring. Boone's graduation and Breen's departure leaves no true punter on the roster. The Lions finished 10th in the league in punt returns (5 ypr) last fall and need a true starter to emerge there. Punt coverage was a mess in 2009, as Penn State finished 117th nationally (15.4 ypr) out of 120 FBS teams. With several key personnel losses on both sides of the ball, Penn State can't afford to have the kicking game be a liability this fall.
Kicker: Carson Wiggs has the strongest leg in the Big Ten and connected on 14 of 21 field goal attempts last fall. He's back for 2010.
Punter: Chris Summers departs after averaging 39.5 yards per punt last fall. Wiggs had four punts in 2009, averaging 36.5 yards.
Punt return: Valentin was the primary return man, but wideout Waynelle Gravesande recorded 11 attempts last fall.
Quick thoughts: Purdue made plenty of special-teams blunders in 2009, and for the Boilers to take the next step this fall, their kicking game must get better. Wiggs can boom field goals from anywhere on the field, giving Danny Hope a valuable weapon. McBurse could be a weapon on kick returns, although Purdue must address the punt return team. Kickoff coverage was miserable in 2009, as the Boilers ranked 112th nationally (24.7 ypr). The Boilers also must address their punter position.
Kicker: Philip Welch is back after connecting on 17 of 24 field goal attempts as a sophomore.
Punter: Brad Nortman returns after finishing fourth in the Big Ten in punting average last fall (42 ypp).
Punt return: Gilreath averaged 5.6 yards and had a 68-yard touchdown as the primary punt returner.
Quick thoughts: Welch and Nortman boast plenty of experience as the primary specialists. It'll be interesting to see if Wisconsin sticks with Gilreath as its top return man or opens things up to other players this spring. Bret Bielema likely will spend much more time worrying about the kickoff coverage team, which ranked 119th nationally out of 120 FBS teams last fall (26.4 ypr). Punt coverage was decent, but you can bet Wisconsin will spend a lot of time on special teams in spring ball.
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