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Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
Thought the position rankings were over? Think again.
We don't forget the specialists on the Big Ten blog, so after a lengthy lull -- blame training camp -- it's time to examine the kicking game around the league. The rankings are based on kickers and punters, return men and coverage units.
1. Michigan State -- The Spartans return two second-team All-Big Ten picks in kicker Brett Swenson and punter Aaron Bates, who averaged 42 yards on 71 punts. The return game looks a little suspect but a healthy Mark Dell should help.
2. Michigan -- It helps to have the best punter in the league in senior Zoltan Mesko, a leading candidate for the Ray Guy Award. Michigan should be more dynamic on returns with Martavious Odoms and others. The big question here is at kicker.
3. Penn State -- Punter Jeremy Boone didn't get many chances last fall but executed well when called upon. There are questions at kicker after the loss of first-team All-Big Ten performer Kevin Kelly, and Derrick Williams will be missed on returns. Penn State is always good on coverage teams.
4. Ohio State -- A few more question marks here than normal, but Ohio State's special teams track record under Jim Tressel can't be denied. Aaron Pettrey should be fine at kicker and has a strong leg. Ohio State brings back the league's top punt return man in Ray Small. The Buckeyes need to upgrade their kick return unit after finishing 108th nationally in 2008.
5. Iowa -- Punter Ryan Donahue is a stud and likely will set school records by the time he's done. Daniel Murray showed he could make a clutch kick against Penn State, though he remains in competition with Trent Mossbrucker. Andy Brodell is a big loss at punt returner, and Jewel Hampton might not be available to return kicks.
6. Wisconsin -- I really like Wisconsin's young specialists, kicker Phillip Welch and punter Brad Nortman. But you can't rank last nationally in kickoff returns and expect to be high on this list. Wisconsin needs to jump start its returns with David Gilreath.
7. Indiana -- Chris Hagerup is a terrific young punter after nailing 13 punts for more than 50 yards last fall. Demetrius McCray looks solid on kickoff returns. Indiana must replace former All-Big Ten kicker Austin Starr, but Starr really struggled last fall (10-for-17). Heralded freshman kicker Mitch Ewald joins the mix.
8. Purdue -- Carson Wiggs did a nice job at kicker after taking over for Chris Summers, who will handle the punting duties this fall. Purdue needs to improve its punting after finishing last in the league in 2008, but the return game looks solid with Aaron Valentin and Royce Adams.
9. Minnesota -- The Gophers are starting over after losing both of their top specialists. They'll be relying on junior Eric Ellestad and freshman Dan Orseske to step up. It helps to have the league's most dynamic return man in Troy Stoudermire.
10. Northwestern -- All too often, the kicking game has cost Northwestern, most notably in the Alamo Bowl against Missouri. Stefan Demos is finally healthy and could handle both the kicking and punting duties this fall. The Wildcats could use a boost in the return game from Stephen Simmons or Andrew Brewer.
11. Illinois -- I really like sophomore kicker Matt Eller, who beat Iowa with a field goal last November. But it's no secret the Illini need significant upgrades on their punt teams after finishing 10th in punting and last in returns. Florida transfer Jarred Fayson should boost the return game. The Illini must improve their kickoff and punt coverage.