Tick tock, errbody.
The countdown is getting more and more finaller as football season is officially coming. I'm genuinely giddy about the stuff we have ready to post up in this piece over the next few weeks (and of course, continuing throughout football season), and I hope all y'all are too.
I highly mismanaged the countdown this year as oodles of my statements as to who might play are proving wrong: Collin Ellis and Chi Chi Ariguzo appear to have beat out Ben Johnson at a linebacker spot, Brandon Vitabile is NU's center with Ben Burkett playing right guard, and all that good stuff. But still, I managed it well in one way, which is that we kept reading about Northwestern all summer and football season is really almost here it really is.
Days Left Til Football Season: 10
None of that wishy-washy bs in this post. We're going position by position down the ST roles.
Kicker: Last year, it was the frequently maligned Stefan Demos. This is the part of the post where I tell you how unfair it was, the way we maligned Demos: by all accounts, he was a serviceable kicker in the Big Ten. He struggled with injury his entire career and made his misses overwhelmingly dramatic, but he was by no means the bad kicker we all made him out to be.
That said, I'm confident that each of the kickers who will be asked to potentially replace him are better. We are aware of Jeff Budzien, who was an All-American kicker in high school. We are also aware of walk-on Steve Flaherty, who has three times appeared in games for NU: twice in blowouts kicking PAT's or kickoffs, once against Auburn in the Outback Bowl on the final play of the game as a decoy. All evidence points to the two being roughly neck-and-neck for the kicking spot, with Flaherty apparently boating the stronger leg but less accuracy. (We've seen his strong leg before - of his two kickoffs, one was a touchback, the other went to the three, Demos' average kickoff over the course of his career landed at the nine-yard line and only had 12 touchbacks out of 70 kicks last year.)
I'm indifferent as to who wins the role and have no inside scoop on who it will be. I just trust that the NU staff, including crack special teams coach Pat Fitzgerald, will pick the right guy and keep him from wearing his leg out a la the year of Demos kicking field goals, PAT's, kickoffs, and punting.
Punter: Former walk-on Brandon Williams was spectacular as a freshman. In 2009, NU was one of the worst teams in the nation at punting. Remember those nice things I said about Stefan Demos as a kicker? They did not hold true for his rugby-style punting. NU was 119th, averaging a measly 34.97 yards per kick and it didn't really stop opponents from returning them either, as NU did allow a return touchdown on the year. The Cats were 11th in the Big Ten in punting and net yards. In 2010, the Cats were second in both categories: Williams' average punt went 40.0 yards, and thanks to the gunning of Jeravin Matthews, were only returned 13 times for 3.3 yards, the third-best number in the country. So, long-story short, NU went from second-to-last out of 120 in one punting category to third of 120 in another. Thanks, Brandon.
So, he's doing it again. He's also holding.
Kick returns: The primary two guys were Stephen Simmons and speedster Venric Mark. As a freshman, Mark was the best NU kick returner since... awkward... Simmons as a freshman, averaging 26.2 yards including a 94-yard touchdown we all remember against Wisconsin. A lot of names are being thrown around as people who will be back there with Mark, but the one I'm seeing the most of is Ibraheim Campbell, the redshirt freshman safety who like Mark, is drawing compliments for his speed.
Punt returns: To say virtually the same thing I just said, Mark as a freshman was the best NU punt returner in a while, averaging 12.9 per return, more than double the 6.3 yards per return NU averaged in 2009. He was joined by Hunter Bates, who had a 33-yarder against Rice but is working his way back from an injury. Again, virtually every running back is being looked at as a potential punt returner, but I'd expect primarily Mark with a side of Bates.
Long-snappin: John Henry Pace - who has been holding down that spot for three years - is graduated, which means Pat Hickey will play. Hickey snapped on FG's and PAT's for two games last year before being taken out of the spot and replaced by Pace. Thought you'd like to know!
All in all, NU's special teams is on an upswing. It used to be the segment of the games everybody dreaded, as NU seemed out-athleted and out-specialisted at every turn, but now we have solid guys at every spot and can do some damage leading into the more prominent segments of the game.