Big Ten: Dan Orseske

Our preseason position ranking series comes to an end today with everybody's favorite group: special teams.

For this ranking, we're going to consider punters, kickers and returners only. No offense to the long-snappers or the punt-team gunners, but things like kickoff coverage units are hard to forecast. We'll give a little extra weight to teams that have returning and proven players at these spots, because it's difficult to know how new punters and kickers will fare when the pressure of real games begin.

As the guys in these positions would say, let's kick it:

[+] EnlargeDan Conroy
Andrew Weber/US PresswireDan Conroy was nearly perfect on his field goal attempts last season.
1. Michigan State: Kicker Dan Conroy made 14 of his 15 attempts last year, and Keshawn Martin led the league in punt return average. They will miss punter Aaron Bates and will have to improve their kickoff return game. And you know you always have to watch out for the fake when the Spartans line up for a kick.

2. Wisconsin: The Badgers are set at both punter and kicker, with seniors Brad Nortman and Philip Welch, respectively. Both are third-year starters who can be relied upon. Wisconsin will need to find a replacement for primary return man David Gilreath.

3. Penn State: The Nittany Lions bring back punter Anthony Fera and punt returner Devon Smith, who finished just behind Martin in yards per attempt last season. Chaz Powell and Stephfon Green are dangerous kick returners. Fera could move over to handle field goals this season if incoming freshman Sam Ficken doesn't win the job.

4. Ohio State: The Buckeyes have a veteran punter in senior Ben Buchanan and two threats to take a kick to the house in Jordan Hall and Jaamal Berry. Sophomore Drew Basil is expected to take over at place-kicker. Special teams are almost always a force in Columbus.

5. Purdue: No one in the league has a bigger leg than Carson Wiggs; the questions is whether he can consistently harness it. Punter Cody Webster averaged 43.3 yards per attempt last season, second best among returning punters. The Boilermakers' return game needs to improve.

6. Illinois: Derek Dimke was a Lou Groza semifinalist last season and broke the school record for points by a kicker. He nailed two 50-plus yarders. Ray Guy semifinalist Anthony Santella is gone, though return man Troy Pollard is back.

7. Northwestern: Brandon Williams improved at punter as his freshman year went along last season. The Wildcats at long last have an elite return option in Venric Mark. But place-kicker was a concern this spring, with Jeff Budzien and Steve Flaherty competing for the job.

8. Iowa: Kirk Ferentz's teams usually find a way to be good on special teams, so odds are the Hawkeyes will climb these rankings. But they lost a lot from 2010, including Ray Guy finalist and four-year starter Ryan Donahue, plus both primary return men. Eric Guthrie held the edge at punter after the spring. Place-kicker Mike Meyer returns after taking over that role for the final 10 games and doing a solid job.

9. Indiana: Mitch Ewald was named to the Groza watch list after a strong freshman year in which he made 16 of 19 field goals. Chris Hagerup needs to increase his punting average of 39.4 yards. The Hoosiers should have enough athletes to replace Tandon Doss on returns.

10. Minnesota: Dan Orseske's 36.1-yard average was worst among starting Big Ten punters in 2010, so that must get better. Jerry Kill must also find a new place-kicker -- NC State transfer Chris Hawthorne looks like the top option. Troy Stoudermire, one of the league's top return specialists, is back for his senior year.

11. Nebraska: Like Iowa, this is a team that will almost assuredly outperform this ranking. But boy did the Huskers lose a lot of talent and experience. It will be difficult to match the value that punter/kicker Alex Henery brought -- Brett Maher and freshman Mauro Bondi will battle to replace him -- and Adi Kunalic was a secret weapon as kickoff specialist. Top returner Niles Pau is gone, too. The Cornhuskers will likely reload, but nobody has bigger shoes to fill at these positions in the Big Ten.

12. Michigan: The kicking game looked like a disaster this spring, with neither Seth Broekhuizen nor Brendan Gibbons inspiring confidence. Incoming freshman Matt Wile might win the job this summer. This could prove to be an Achilles' heel for the Wolverines, as it was a year ago. On the plus side, Will Hagerup is the leading returning punter in the Big Ten, though he had only 33 attempts last season.
Let's take a look back at Week 11 before spinning it forward to Week 12.

Team of the Week: Northwestern. There are two guarantees with Northwestern football in the last decade or so. Every season, the Wildcats drop a game they shouldn't and pull off an upset, usually against Iowa. After stumbling against short-handed Purdue in early October, the Wildcats continued their trend by upsetting then-No. 13 Iowa on Saturday. Northwestern blew an early lead, which is nothing new this season, but this time Pat Fitzgerald's crew rallied in the fourth quarter behind star quarterback Dan Persa and others. Persa led two fourth-quarter scoring drives and Northwestern held on to beat Iowa for the fifth time in the teams' last six meetings. The victory ensures that Northwestern will record three consecutive winning seasons for the first time since 1958-60.

[+] EnlargeDan Persa
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhNorthwestern quarterback Dan Persa rallied the Wildcats to a win over Iowa before leaving the game with a season-ending injury.
Best game: Iowa at Northwestern. The Wildcats controlled play for the first half but led just 7-3 at halftime as both defenses stepped up. Iowa surged throughout the third quarter as the Hawkeyes controlled the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball and twice reached the end zone. But an interception by Northwestern's Brian Peters changed momentum and gave the home side new life. Northwestern ran its up-tempo offense to perfection behind Persa on two scoring drives, and Iowa's veteran defenders seemed to wear down at the end. The final minutes featured plenty of drama as Persa fired the game-winning touchdown pass with 1:22 left but ruptured his Achilles' tendon on the play. Iowa had one final chance but couldn't get the ball in the end zone. Northwestern celebrated a bittersweet win, as Persa underwent season-ending surgery Saturday night. The Minnesota-Illinois game also deserves a mention as the Gophers rallied from 10 points down in the fourth quarter to snap their nine-game losing streak.

Biggest play: Several come to mind, including Persa's 20-yard touchdown pass to Demetrius Fields to give Northwestern the lead for good. Minnesota's Troy Stoudermire gave his team new life in the fourth quarter with a 90-yard kickoff return that set up a touchdown. But my pick took place at The Shoe. Ohio State led Penn State 17-14 early in the fourth quarter when Terrelle Pryor heaved a deep pass to receiver DeVier Posey, who couldn't haul it in but tipped the ball. Fellow wideout Dane Sanzenbacher swooped in to grab the deflection for a 58-yard touchdown. Ohio State went on to a 38-14 romp.

Specialist spotlight: Minnesota's much-maligned special teams units deserve credit after Saturday's win. Stoudermire's kick return was huge, and the Gophers also got a 45-yard field goal from Eric Ellestad and three punts placed inside the Illinois 20-yard line by Dan Orseske. Northwestern and Iowa both were brilliant on kickoffs and punts, as Stefan Demos and Michael Meyer combined for eight touchbacks and Brandon Williams and Ryan Donahue combined to place four punts inside the opponents' 20-yard line. Both teams finished with zero return yards. Purdue's Carson Wiggs continued his strong season by going 3-for-3 on field goal attempts, while Wisconsin's Philip Welch went 2-for-2. Punters Anthony Fera of Penn State and Ben Buchanan of Ohio State both had good performances at Ohio Stadium.

Power surge: Wisconsin turned in a historic offensive performance in crushing Indiana on Saturday. The Badgers' 83 points marked the most against a Big Ten team in team history and the highest total in a game during the modern era. It was the most since the Badgers defeated Marquette 85-0 on Oct. 8, 1915. The 83 points scored tied the Big Ten record for scoring in the modern era, as Ohio State put up 83 against Iowa in 1950.

Game balls (given to players on winning or losing teams who didn't receive helmet stickers)

  • Wisconsin DEs Louis Nzegwu and J.J. Watt: It wasn't all about the Badgers' offense Saturday, as Nzegwu and Watt combined for four tackles for loss, a forced fumble, two fumble recoveries and a sack against Indiana.
  • Ohio State CB Devon Torrence: After getting picked on in the first half, Torrence responded with a pick-six in the third quarter to give Ohio State its first lead against Penn State. He had six tackles, one for loss, in the game.
  • Minnesota QB Adam Weber: It hasn't been an easy road for the Gophers senior quarterback, but he had a big role in snapping the team's losing streak Saturday. Weber threw for 225 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions at Illinois. Also meriting a mention is running back DeLeon Eskridge, who rushed for three touchdowns.
  • Michigan LB Obi Ezeh: It has been a bumpy road for Ezeh the last two seasons, but the senior stepped up along with several other Michigan defenders at Purdue. Ezeh recorded a team-high eight tackles, including two for loss and a sack against the Boilers.
  • Northwestern S Brian Peters: After some struggles in recent weeks, Peters made several big plays against Iowa, none bigger than an interception early in the fourth quarter that set up Northwestern's rally. He led the Wildcats with 10 tackles and recorded a forced fumble and two pass breakups.
  • Wisconsin QB Scott Tolzien: The running backs always get top billing at Wisconsin, but Tolzien was nearly flawless against Indiana, completing 15 of 18 passes for 181 yards and three touchdowns.
  • Illinois RB Mikel Leshoure: The talented junior running back continues to do his part for the now-slumping Illini. After recording five touchdowns last week at Michigan, Leshoure racked up 141 rush yards and two touchdowns on only 18 carries against Minnesota.

Now here's a quick look at Week 12.

[+] EnlargeIndiana head coach Bill Lynch
AP Photo/Morry GashPerhaps no coach in the league needs a win like Indiana's Bill Lynch.
Penn State (6-4, 3-3 Big Ten) vs. Indiana (4-6, 0-6) at Landover, Md.: Embattled Hoosiers coach Bill Lynch could really use a win right about now, but the schedule does him no favors. Lynch signed off on moving this home game to FedEx Field, but he and his team have to anticipate a road-game atmosphere as Penn State fans will pack the place. Indiana must win to maintain hope of becoming bowl eligible, while Penn State tries to ensure a winning season.

Purdue (4-6, 2-4) at No. 12 Michigan State (9-1, 5-1): After an open week, the Spartans resume play with a chance to reach 10 wins for the first time since 1999. It marks the final home game for All-American linebacker Greg Jones, who will take aim at a patchwork Purdue offense. Two of the Big Ten's top defenders share the field in Jones and Purdue defensive end Ryan Kerrigan, whose team must win its final two games to become bowl eligible.

No. 7 Wisconsin (9-1, 5-1) at Michigan (7-3, 3-3): The Badgers are riding a five-game win streak and put up 83 points in their last game, but they have really struggled in the state of Michigan and especially at the Big House. Wisconsin hasn't won in Ann Arbor since 1994 and hasn't won in the state since beating Michigan State in 2002 at Spartan Stadium. Michigan has won back-to-back games but needs a much cleaner performance in all three phases to record the upset.

Illinois (5-5, 3-4) vs. Northwestern (7-3, 3-3) at Chicago: Football is back at Wrigley Field for the first time since 1970 and the Illini and Wildcats will play the first college game at the Friendly Confines since 1938. The pageantry takes center stage Saturday, but Illinois still needs a win to become bowl eligible and turn down the heat on coach Ron Zook. Northwestern redshirt freshman Evan Watkins makes his first career start at quarterback.

No. 9 Ohio State (9-1, 5-1) at No. 20 Iowa (7-3, 4-2): The Buckeyes must win out to give themselves a chance at a record-tying sixth consecutive Big Ten title. To do so, they must play better on the road after losing at Wisconsin and struggling at Illinois. Iowa gave Ohio State all it could handle last year in Columbus, and this time the Hawkeyes will have starting quarterback Ricky Stanzi available. It's Senior Day at Kinnick Stadium, where Iowa aims for a signature win to salvage an otherwise disappointing season.

Bye: Minnesota (2-9, 1-6).
The position rankings finish with the special-teams units. For this list, I examine kickers, punters, return men and coverage units and look at each team's overall picture in the all-important third phase. The Big Ten loses several elite specialists, including punter Zoltan Mesko and kicker Brett Swenson. It's a little odd not to see Ohio State near the top, but if there's a hole on Jim Tressel's team this year, it might be on special teams.

Here are my top five:

[+] EnlargeDerrell Johnson-Koulianos
Aaron Josefczyk/Icon SMIDerrell Johnson-Koulianos ranked second in the Big Ten in kick return average (31.5 ypr) in 2009.
1. Iowa: The Hawkeyes boast one of the league's top punters in Ryan Donahue, who has averaged more than 40 yards per punt in each of his first three seasons. Iowa also brings back Derrell Johnson-Koulianos, who ranked second in the Big Ten in kick return average (31.5 ypr) in 2009. There's competition at kicker (big surprise), but Daniel Murray and Trent Mossbrucker both boast experience. Colin Sandeman quietly ranked second in the league in punt return average last year.

2. Michigan State: Swenson is undoubtedly a major loss, but Michigan State should improve in the other phases of special teams. Punter Aaron Bates was extremely solid in 2009, averaging 41.6 yards despite a league-high 63 attempts. Look out for Keshawn Martin, who averaged 28.9 yards on kick returns last fall. Martin could be the league's top return man by season's end. The Spartans need to upgrade their kickoff coverage unit.

3. Ohio State: Despite question marks at both specialist spots, Ohio State's history as an elite special-teams squad under Tressel can't be overlooked. Hopes are high for Ben Buchanan at punter, and Devin Barclay has a very big kick on his résumé against Iowa last year. The Buckeyes must replace return man Ray Small, but there's enough talent there. The coverage teams are always good in Columbus.

4. Minnesota: The Gophers' strengths are their return teams, led by Troy Stoudermire and Bryant Allen. Minnesota led the Big Ten in punt return average, although it had only nine runbacks all year, and finished fifth in kick return average. Eric Ellestad was perfect on PATs and had a decent year on field goals. The Gophers need Dan Orseske to step in at punter for Blake Haudan.

5. Wisconsin: There are some concerns about the Badgers' special-teams units, but everyone is back and should be better. Punter Brad Nortman averaged 42 yards per punt last year, and while kicker Philip Welch took a mini step back, he still booted 17 field goals. David Gilreath is one of the league's most experienced return men, and linebacker Chris Borland proved to be a difference-maker on special teams last year.

More rankings ...

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.

It's game day at TCF Bank Stadium

September, 19, 2009
9/19/09
11:00
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg


MINNEAPOLIS -- Greetings from the Big Ten's newest stadium, which definitely lives up to the hype.

Minnesota finally has a real home stadium, but whether the friendly surroundings pay off today remains to be seen. The Gophers face an enormous test in eighth-ranked California, led by Heisman Trophy candidate Jahvid Best at running back.

For the first time in my journalism career, I'm happy to provide a weather forecast for a Minnesota home game (instead of the standard room temperature joke at the Metrodome). It looks like a gorgeous day, with temperatures around 70 degrees at kickoff, working their way up to 77 during the fourth quarter.

A couple of personnel notes for Minnesota: cornerback Marcus Sherels (ankle) isn't expected to play, and Dom Alford will start at left tackle over Matt Stommes.

THREE KEYS FOR CALIFORNIA

1. Stay awake. Head coach Jeff Tedford hates hearing about how the early kickoff last year against Maryland doomed his team, which looked utterly lifeless in College Park. A strong start on offense, especially from quarterback Kevin Riley, would prove the Bears are ready this time and could take the crowd out of the game.

2. Find Eric Decker on every play. The Gophers senior wide receiver has been the team's only consistent offensive weapon so far. Talented Bears cornerback Syd'Quan Thompson likely will be assigned to Decker (the game's best matchup, in my opinion), but he could use some safety help against the Biletnikoff Award candidate.

3. Pressure quarterback Adam Weber. Cal ranks sixth nationally in sacks (4.5 spg), and the Gophers' offensive line is still adjusting to a brand-new system. Weber will make mistakes under pressure from time to time, so Cal should take an aggressive approach with defensive end Ernest Owusu and others.

THREE KEYS FOR MINNESOTA

1. Make Riley win the game. Minnesota's linebackers have been fabulous so far, but Best and Shane Vereen can take over a game with their big-play ability. The Gophers need to load up the box and force Riley to make tough throws. Riley has been extremely efficient this season, but Minnesota can't let Cal's running backs take over.

2. Diversify the offense. Decker can't beat a team like Cal by himself, and he'll need help from his fellow wideouts, tight end Nick Tow-Arnett and running backs Duane Bennett and DeLeon Eskridge. This needs to be the game where wideout Hayo Carpenter becomes a difference maker for the Gophers.

3. Make plays on special teams. The Gophers rank among the top 20 nationally in both kickoff and punt returns, and sophomore Troy Stoudermire can be a game-changer Saturday. Stoudermire should give Minnesota's offense good field position, and the Gophers need continued excellence from punter Dan Orseske and kicker Eric Ellestad.

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.

Let's begin.

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.

Big Ten special-teams snapshot

June, 19, 2009
6/19/09
10:45
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Thanks to several of you for reminding me about special teams, a subject I had planned to tackle during spring ball but got bogged down with too many other things.

Here's a quick look at where each Big Ten team stands on special teams heading into the summer. A more comprehensive position-by-position ranking will come your way a little closer to the season.

GOOD SHAPE

Michigan State -- The Spartans return Lou Groza Award candidate Brett Swenson along with punter Aaron Bates, who averaged 42 yards per boot last season. Punt return man Otis Wiley is gone, but Mark Dell should step in nicely and the Spartans boast some exciting, young talent in Keshawn Martin, Jairus Jones and others.

Ohio State -- The Buckeyes don't have as many special teams certainties as most years, but history doesn't lie. Ohio State will always be strong on special teams under head coach Jim Tressel. Punter is a question mark, but Aaron Pettrey should be fine on field goals. Ray Small is one of the nation's best punt return men, and the kickoff return unit should be much more dynamic than it was last year.

Illinois -- The Illini return both of their starting specialists, and kicker Matt Eller looks like a keeper after connecting on 8 of 10 field goal attempts from beyond 40 yards last year. Illinois' return game also should be much improved as Florida transfer Jarred Fayson enters a mix that includes Arrelious Benn.

SO-SO

Penn State -- Jeremy Boone is one of the league's best punters, and odds are Penn State will be fine on special teams by the end of the season. But Kevin Kelly is a big loss at kicker, and the Nittany Lions will miss the dynamic Derrick Williams on punt and kickoff returns. Penn State will look to Chaz Powell to provide a spark on returns.

Iowa -- Ryan Donahue has established himself as a solid Big Ten punter, and the Hawkeyes have two options at kicker in Daniel Murray, the hero of the Penn State victory, and Trent Mossbrucker. The big loss comes at punt returner, as Andy Brodell was one of the best around. Iowa also might need a primary kick returner if Jewel Hampton moves into a starting spot at running back.

Minnesota -- The Gophers have the Big Ten's most dangerous return man in Troy Stoudermire, who averaged 25.8 yards on kickoff returns and racked up more than 1,000 return yards last year. Marcus Sherels is a very solid punt return man, but the Gophers must replace both of their starting specialists. Hopes are high for heralded freshman punter Dan Orseske.

Michigan -- Bad seasons usually equal a lot of work for the punter, and Zoltan Mesko came through in a big way for Michigan last fall. The Big Ten's best punter is back, and Michigan also boasts return men Martavious Odoms and Boubacar Cissoko. The situation at kicker looks a bit messy, and Rich Rodriguez will need some of his incoming freshmen to contribute right away.

Wisconsin -- Kicker Phillip Welch comes off a stellar freshman season in which he connected on 17 of 20 field goal attempts. Punter Brad Nortman also comes back, and David Gilreath remains a dangerous man on punt and kickoff returns.

A LITTLE SHAKY

Purdue -- From field goals to punt coverage, Purdue had its adventures on special teams last fall. But if Carson Wiggs continues to perform well on makeable kicks, the Boilers should be fine. Purdue loses Desmond Tardy, who led the Big Ten in kickoff returns (28.8 yards per return), as well as Kory Sheets. Hopes are high for Aaron Valentin on kickoff returns after the wideout averaged 25.7 yards per runback in 2008.

Indiana -- Austin Starr didn't have the senior season he envisioned, but the All-Big Ten kicker most certainly will be missed in Bloomington. Indiana also loses Marcus Thigpen, who made his mark as a kickoff returner. Punter Chris Hagerup looks like a keeper but comes off knee surgery, and the Hoosiers are looking for help on returns.

Northwestern -- The Wildcats need to reach a point where special teams no longer costs them games. It happened again in the Alamo Bowl, a game Northwestern should have won. Punter Stefan Demos did a lot of nice things last season but can't afford critical mistakes like the one he made in the bowl (kicking to Jeremy Maclin). The Wildcats bring in a scholarship kicker in Jeff Budzien, and they need some help on returns.

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Saturday, 1/3
Sunday, 1/4
Monday, 1/12