Big Ten: Nick Ford

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.

Some notes from Indiana practice

August, 20, 2008
8/20/08
8:26
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Before trading the Assembly Hall media room for my hotel room, I had a few thoughts after attending Indiana's afternoon practice in toasty temperatures.

No, head coach Bill Lynch didn't name a starting quarterback and probably won't until the season opener, but both Ben Chappell and Kellen Lewis got plenty of reps today.

  • The quarterbacks are splitting snaps almost evenly, and both Chappell and Lewis rotated with the first-team offense. Both quarterbacks fired touchdown passes in 7-on-7's soon after I arrived, with Chappell finding Terrance Turner and Lewis passing to Damarlo Belcher.
  • Lewis definitely doesn't appear rusty. He looked crisp on slant passes and put good air under the ball on sideline fade routes. On the flip side, Chappell is better than most people think. The highlight of the day came when he rolled to his left and fired downfield to a wide-open Mitchell Evans, the former quarterback and safety. Evans made a one-handed grab and raced to the end zone.
  • The most exciting part of practice came toward the end, as Lynch sent the first-team units to one sideline and everyone else to the other for an overtime simulation. Just like in a game, each side had a possession from the 25-yard line. Both Lewis and Chappell stayed with the first-teamers, but for what it's worth, Lewis had the first shot with the 1's. None of the quarterbacks on either side moved the ball much. Lewis had a third-down pass dropped by Turner, and Chappell didn't even get a chance to throw it as Indiana mysteriously ran on third-and-3. It came down to a battle of kickers. After both made field goals in the first overtime, backup Nick Ford had a 51-yarder clank off the left upright. Austin Starr had a chance to win from 37 yards out, and the All-Big Ten selection came through.
Lynch said he has put the team through simulations -- goal-line, two-minute -- throughout the week to get them ready for games.
"Any time you can make it somewhat competitive, kids like that," Lynch said. "You have to do the grind, you have to do the reps. ... To change it up and have them drill like that, they're ready for that."
  • Belcher, a 6-foot-5, 210-pound freshman, was one of the most impressive players in the workout. Projected starter Ray Fisher sat out practice, giving Belcher extra reps with the first-team offense. He came through with several nice catches, out-jumping cornerback Donnell Jones on a sideline route. He's moving up the depth chart and should be a weapon for a team that loses top wideout James Hardy.
"He's a good talent," Lynch said. "He wants to learn. He wants to know the offense and he wants to do things right, but he does have that ability, when the ball is in the air, to go make a play. And he made several today, so he's coming."
  • Lynch expects an NCAA decision will come soon regarding safety Jerimy Finch, a transfer from Florida who hopes to play this season. Finch practiced Thursday. Indiana also is awaiting word on promising freshman wide receiver Tandon Doss, who cannot practice with the team because of an academics/eligibility issue.
  • Safety Brandon Mosely and cornerback Chris Adkins recorded pass breakups during team drills, and linebacker Matt Mayberry looked good on blitz opportunities. Chris Phillips has won one cornerback spot and co-defensive coordinator Joe Palcic has an idea of who he wants for the other spot but isn't quite ready to say.
  • It was tough to get a read on the running backs because they couldn't be tackled to the ground, but freshman Darius Willis definitely has the size to help out in the backfield.
  • Lynch announced after practice that freshman offensive lineman A.J. Thompson has opted to transfer.
Check back later for a two-part Q&A with Lynch and more. Dinner awaits.

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