Special teams are often overlooked but constitute one-third of the game, as coaches are always so quick to note. They’re right, too. Hidden yardage resides within the world of kicking, returns and kick coverage, regularly shaping field position that looms large in close games of conference play.
This week, our Big Ten writers have evaluated the best groups at every position in the league. We conclude with special teams. Sure, it’s not a traditional position group, but who cares?
Here’s a look at our rankings:
Big Ten teams with the best special teams
Why Ohio State has the best special teams: The Buckeyes had the Big Ten’s best coverage units last season, ranking third nationally on opponents’ kickoff returns and 13th (behind Northwestern) in covering punts. Standout Australian punter Cameron Johnston, who has helped Ohio State lead the league in net punting for three straight years, returns alongside place-kicker Sean Nuernberger. Nuernberger reclaimed his job from Jack Willoughby late last season after starting as a freshman in 2014. Dontre Wilson and Curtis Samuel are back to return kicks, and the Buckeyes feature plenty of candidates to join the party, including Torrance Gibson and Marshon Lattimore.
Why Michigan and Nebraska are the runners-up: The Wolverines’ special teams were remembered most last season for their blunder in the final seconds of that memorable loss to Michigan State. And that’s not fair. Because Michigan was good in the kicking game -- and all major players return, with the exception of Blake O’Neill, the punter at the center of the Michigan State debacle. Kenny Allen, who earned third-team All-Big Ten recognition as a place-kicker and made 18 of 22 field goals, is set to add punting to his plate. In the return game, Jabrill Peppers and Jourdan Lewis do good work. Jehu Chesson had a 96-yard kickoff return last season, and the Wolverines are excited to add freshman Kareem Walker to the mix on returns.
Nebraska returns first-team All-Big Ten punter Sam Foltz, who averaged 44.2 yards per boot last season, and second-team all-league kicker Drew Brown, who nailed 21 of 27 field-goal attempts in 2015 as a sophomore. Jordan Westerkamp was serviceable on punt returns, but De’Mornay Pierson-El is expected to regain his spot after missing most of last season with multiple injuries. As a freshman in 2014, Pierson-El returned three punts for touchdowns, and his 596 punt-return yards outpaced every other team nationally by nearly 200 yards. The Cornhuskers struggled on kickoff returns, ranking 116th nationally and last in the league, and they must improve at covering punts after ranking 104th.
Team that just missed the top-three cut: Indiana Hoosiers
Griffin Oakes was named the Big Ten kicker of the year last season, making 24 of 29 field-goal attempts, including 6 of 9 from 40 yards or longer. He’s back as a junior and a real weapon -- motivated, too, after his kick to force a second overtime against Duke in the Pinstripe Bowl was controversially ruled wide right. The Hoosiers are auditioning punters this spring to replace Erich Toth. Mitchell Paige is back to return punts after taking two for touchdowns in 2015. The weak area? Returning and covering kickoffs, at which the Hoosiers ranked 104th and 106th nationally last year.
Team that could surprise: Northwestern Wildcats
Not much trumps experience, and the Wildcats have it at the specialist positions in senior Jack Mitchell, who made 18 of 27 field goals last year, and junior punter Hunter Niswander. Solomon Vault, third-team all-conference as a returner, returned kickoffs for touchdowns last year against Duke and Penn State. The Wildcats allowed just 33 yards last season on punt returns and held foes to an average of less than 2 yards, ranking third nationally.
Team that needs to step up: Iowa Hawkeyes
The formula for Iowa’s wild success in 2015 included strong play all around on special teams. The Hawkeyes featured Marshall Koehn, who was second-team All-Big Ten as a kicker and occasional rugby punter, and traditional punter Dillon Kidd. Both positions are wide open. Ron Coluzzi, a graduate transfer from Central Michigan with solid experience, will join the battle after spring practice. Desmond King remains dangerous on returns, but Iowa can’t afford to take a big step back in the kicking game.