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Thursday, July 24, 2014
Preseason position preview: Specialists

By Brian Bennett

We've been previewing each position group in the Big Ten, and we've gone through every level of the offense and defense. But that's only two-thirds of the game. Don't forget special teams.

It can be hard to judge some of the new guys in the kicking game, as they often practice alone on separate fields and respond differently to pressure. So we'll give more weight to those who have already proved themselves in the league. Here's how we see the specialists shaping up:

Best of the best: Michigan State

Punter Mike Sadler is like an extension of the defense, so brilliant is he at pinning opponents near their own goal line (and he must be accounted for on trick plays). The vastly improved place-kicking game was a hidden reason for Michigan State's turnaround last year, and credit belongs to Michael Geiger, who missed only one field goal in 16 tries as a freshman. Macgarrett Kings Jr., who was suspended this spring, finished third in the Big Ten in punt returns a year ago. The kickoff return game needs work, but all in all, the Spartans are in great shape whenever ball meets foot.

Next up: Maryland

Only four returning FBS players made more field goals last year than Brad Craddock, who went 21-for-25. William Likely was one of the ACC's best kickoff and punt returners as a freshman. Nathan Renfro had some shaky moments at punter but is entering his third year as a starter. The Terps enter the Big Ten armed with strong special teams. Ohio State should also be very, very good if an adequate replacement for placekicker Drew Basil is found.

Sleeper: Illinois

It wasn't that long ago that the Illini special teams were embarrassingly bad. But things are improving. V'Angelo Bentley led the league with a 15.8-yard average on punt returns last year. Place-kicker Taylor Zalewski has battled with inconsistency but did make a 54-yarder last year; he'll face some competition from Navy transfer David Reisner and Ryan Frain this summer. Veteran punter Justin DuVernois has been solid.

Problem for a contender: Wisconsin

The Badgers have had major issues on field goals the past couple of seasons. Jack Russell needs to provide more than just easy opportunities for my dog puns, or else he could be on a short leash (ahem). Drew Meyer returns at punter, but Wisconsin finished ninth in the Big Ten in net punting average last season. The good news is that Kenzel Doe is a top-flight return man. But if the overall kicking game doesn't improve, it could cost the team a win or two.