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Big Ten position outlook: Special teams

7/15/2015

Big Ten media days are a little more than two weeks away, and preseason practice will begin right after. So we're getting a jump on the festivities by examining and ranking each of the position groups around the league.

Up next: Special teams

Best of the best: Maryland and Nebraska

Maryland has an elite kicker and a great returner. Nebraska has an elite returner and a great punter. So, anyway you look at it, these units are pretty solid. The Terps boast the nation's top kicker in Brad Craddock, the reigning Lou Groza Award winner who went 18-of-19 on field goals last season. And the Huskers have De'Mornay Pierson-El, a preseason first-team All-American who had three return TDs and 596 punt return yards last season, nearly 200 yards more than anyone else.

Nebraska needs to see more out of kicker Drew Brown, who struggled beyond 40 yards last season. And Maryland needs more consistency out of the punter, whoever that winds up being (last year's starter, Nathan Renfro, transferred to Tennessee). Regardless, though, the fact is both of these teams have several impact players that put them at the top despite a question mark or two. Maryland's Will Likely averaged 31 yards a kick return and had two return TDs (one punt, one kickoff), Nebraska's Sam Foltz averaged 42.2 yards a punt and saw more than 40 percent of his punts land inside the 20.

Next up: Minnesota

Nebraska may have the best returner and Maryland may have the best kicker, but the Gophers boast the top punter. Peter Mortell was last season's B1G punter of the year, as he averaged 45.1 yards a punt and booted the pigskin 50 yards or more about once in every three tries. But he's not the only reason the Gophers are next up. Jalen Myrick finished second in the conference in kick return average -- his 28.2 yard average was behind only Maryland's Likely -- and Craig James finished within the top-five in punt return average. Kicker Ryan Santoso needs to get better, but at least last season was his first as a starter. Overall, the Gophers are have a lot to build from.

Sleeper: Indiana

The Hoosiers don't really have a glaring weakness here, as they return their kicker/punter combo and have a handful of players with a lot of potential. Kicker Griffin Oakes hit the longest field goal in the nation last year -- a 58-yarder against Maryland -- and had a touchback on nearly half (48.8 percent) of his kickoffs. Punter Erich Toth was middle-of-the road when it came to his punting average, but he still had 44.2 percent of his punts wind up as a fair catch. And returner J-Shun Harris II didn't dazzle last season but was timed in the 40-yard dash this spring at 4.37 seconds. So don't be surprised if the Hoosiers' special teams end up winning them a game or two in 2015.

Problem for a contender: Penn State

The Nittany Lions should have a strong unit in the future, as they recently earned commitments in the 2016 class from some of the nation's best in kicker Quinn Nordin and punter Blake Gillikin. That's the future, though. This year? It might be another season of struggles. Gone is fan favorite Sam Ficken, who connected on 24-of-29 field goal attempts last season. And, likely in his place, is redshirt freshman Joe "The Toe" Julius, who has a strong leg but isn't yet all that consistent or accurate. Punter doesn't have a much better situation, as PSU ranked No. 106 nationally in net average in 2014 -- and shouldn't be that much better in 2015. PSU should also be better in kick return coverage this season, but it still has a long way to go. The Lions had the sixth-worst kick return coverage in the nation last season (26.11 yards per return).