There are a lot of things to be excited about from Northwestern's football team this year.
The offense should be above average, with a top-20 running game between Kain Colter and Venric Mark, an offensive line with a lot of talent, and Trevor Siemian tossing to a lot of highly touted receivers. Never mind that Colter can also throw, and Siemian does have the capability to run.
The defense should also be above average: three strong linebackers, one beastly lineman, and a pair of very good secondary players, many of the returning players that made this team top 30 in scoring defense last year.
With those two units, Northwestern would be a good team, probably with a winning record in the Big Ten. But what will make Northwestern an even better team is their third, often forgotten unit, special teams. Northwestern will have the best special teams in the country in 2013, if not, close, and it will win Northwestern a game, if not more, as it did in 2012.
Let's get to the breakdown.
Wait, what's this about Northwestern's special teams winning them games?
It happened last year.
Against Syracuse: Venric Mark returns one punt for a touchdown, later returns a 53-yard punt 52 yards to Syracuse's 28, which becomes a Christian Jones touchdown four plays later. Meanwhile, Syracuse's Ross Krautman hit only two of his three field goal attempts, missing a 44-yard field goal. Northwestern wins by one.
Boston College: Jeff Budzien hits all five of his field goals. BC scores 12 points. Any one of those misses, it's a tie game down the stretch. Instead, NU has a three-point lead, drastically changing the playcalling by both teams. Brandon Williams also perfectly drops a punt on the one-yard line as Boston College tries to come back, they can't do anything without room to operate in the backfield, their ensuing punt doesn't cross midfield, and a Mike Trumpy TD plays later seals a 22-13 win.
Michigan State: Jeff Budzien nails all three of his field goals. Michigan State's Jeff Conroy shanks a 37-yarder. Budzien's 27-yarder in the fourth quarter seals it.
So that's three games where special teams was a boost that helped NU win. Sure, Northwestern also lost against Penn State despite Mark's punt return TD, and Budzien lone missed field goal of the year -- the 53-yarder against Nebraska that was juuuuuuuuuuuuuust a few feet to the right of the uprights -- could have won them a fourth game. But regardless, NU's special teams were a weapon outside of what we generally consider when we think about a football game that allowed the Wildcats to take an advantage, and make them a much better football team.
So what's my argument Northwestern will have THE BEST SPECIAL TEAMS IN THE COUNTRY? Let me begin:
Jeff Budzien is the best kicker in the country
Guys, #CollegeKickers is a very, very real phenomenon. Compared to some college kickers, Stefan Demos was a pretty damn good kicker. He's got a job kicking professionally! But because kickers, by nature, are more noteworthy when they miss than when they connect, we give kickers a bad rap.
Jeff Budzien did not often give us the opportunity to give him a bad rap.
19-for-20, perfect on extra points. His only miss was from 53 yards, and he had the leg on it. We have told you about #Budzien4Groza, and we were not joking. When it comes to kicking field goals, Budzien is unbelievably accurate, and he has the leg to hit them from up to 50 yards. That's unreal, and Northwestern fans should be grateful their team has someone as good as Budzien.
So, I know what you're thinking: what about Tulane kicker Cairo Santos, who went 21-for-21 and 26-for-27 on extra points, and hit a 54-yarder and a 57 yarder. What about him? He's the preseason favorite to repeat as the Groza winner and preseason all-American by pretty much everybody.
Not to take away from Santos, but I think he is like 40 trillion times worse than Jeff Budzien.
Of all the teams in FBS football, two play in domes: Tulane and Idaho (ed. note; and Syracuse! Whoops.) Kicking in a dome is basically the easiest thing anybody has ever done. I've never missed a field goal from under 65 yards on the occasions to kick field goals in an NFL-type domed stadium (note: I have never been given any such opportunity), and I don't think it's impressive that Santos doesn't, either. When Santos kicks at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, he is in an air-conditioned, windless facility, kicking off of artificial grass with no irregularities, and, thanks to the nature of Tulane football, there are no irritating distractions like fans and stuff. The referees might as well allow hire a robotic kicking machine to do Santos' job for him while allowing Santos to recline in a hammock or La-Z-Boy while servant women fan him and bring him delicious frozen drinks. In fact, nobody has confirmed to me that this is not what actually happens at Tulane football games when Santos is supposedly kicking.
Meanwhile, Jeff Budzien kicks on a natural grass surface in Evanston, Illinois, which is north of Chicago, which is a city whose most famous nickname relates to the fact that it is extremely windy there. Why not just strap a ravenous wolverine to Budzien's left leg while asking him to kick with his right? Every time he doesn't slip on the patchy, banana-peel-ridden, war-torn grass of Ryan Field or get blown over by one of the Sharknado-esque gusts of wind while doing his steps before kicking the field goal should be considered a success, and yet, he also hits a high percentage of his field goals.
I guess what I'm trying to say is: Jeff Budzien is an enormous colossus valiantly booting field goals while Santos is some sort of gross field rodent, like a weasel, vole, oIr shrew, and those of you riding the Santos bandwagon are idiots who don't deserve to read my website, or, for that matter, breathe.
So, back to my point, Budzien is very good at kicking, and is an excellent weapon to have. There are some flaws in his game: he isn't overly powerful, and, in his two years as Northwestern's full-time placekicker, he's only kicked one kickoff. In part to prevent overtaxing Budzien's leg and in part because Budzien hasn't shown he has an overly strong leg, I think Northwestern should get another kicker to handle kickoffs like Steve Flaherty did the past two seasons. But that shouldn't take away from his status as arguably the nation's best placekicker.
Venric Mark is the best punt returner in the game
This one's a bit harder to prove, but I think it's true or close to true. Mark had two touchdowns on 15 returns, one of only two players with more than one touchdown on less than 20 returns, and had an average of 18.7 yards per return, which would have been the best in the nation had it not been for the arbitrary rule for qualifying (1.2 punt returns per game, which is 16 for a team that plays 13 games like Northwestern did, meaning one more measly return would have gotten Mark in as a qualifier.) Mark has crazy acceleration, great vision to see where lanes are, and the ability to switch directions really quickly, all of which make him a punt return guy. (He's less good at returning kickoffs, which are bank a lot more on straight line speed, although he's still reasonably good at that.)
It's a lot easier to find potential players who could be considered better returners than Mark. Mizzou's Marcus Murphy, for example, had three punt return touchdowns. Well, he had 28 returns, nearly twice as many as Mark, and two of his touchdowns were in the season opener against Southeastern Louisiana, against whom Venric Mark would have like 42,000 punt return touchdowns, probably. Ohio State's Philly Brown also had two punt returns for touchdowns on just 18 attempts, but his overall average was 12.3 yards per punt, also known as only two thirds as good as Venric Mark. Tramaine Thompson and Spiffy Evans would have had higher averages than Mark if they'd qualified -- 19.8 yards on 16 returns for Kansas State's Thompson, and 25.3 yards per return for Boston College's Evans -- but both scored their only punt return touchdowns against FCS teams. Guys, I had 11 punt return touchdowns against FCS teams last season. Not impressing me. (Note: I have never ever even had a punt return touchdown against anybody in my life, and quite frankly would probably drop the ball instead of catching it because first you have to run over to the ball which is hard, then you have to catch it even though it's coming down really fast and the ball is hard and it generally spins really fast.)
So, yeah, there's a lot of names in the mix. Oregon's DeAnthony Thomas and Kent State's Dri Archer are well known for just being tiny, lightning-quick monsters in general, and that translates well to punt returns. Thomas had 13 last year on 17.1 yards per return with a touchdown against Colorado, and Archer was killer in the kickoff return game, but didn't handle punts. I'm not sure if Thomas will continue running punts back now that he's Oregon's full-time RB, but Archer is supposed to run back punts for Kent State, and he will beat up the MAC.
You can definitely make the case Mark is the best, statistically and skillset-wise. And there's more coming.
Northwestern has a solid punting game
Like we wrote in our Brandon Williams post, Williams doesn't have a murderous leg -- overall punting, Northwestern was 82nd in the country -- but he does a great job of getting enough hangtime that Northwestern's coverage team can quickly wrap up opposing returners. Just 4.86 yards per return against Northwestern, 19th in the country, and Williams' 37.6 net yards per punt was third in the Big Ten last year.
Northwestern is kinda sub-par at kickoffs and returning them
NU gets just 20.87 yards per kickoff return, 75th in the nation, and their average kickoff went 59.56 yards with just 19 touchbacks, good for 97th and the 106th worst percentage in the nation. NU was seventh in the Big Ten at kickoff returns and ninth at covering them, and even gave up a return touchdown against Indiana.
I think Venric Mark is probably the best return man NU has -- he ran back a kick against Wisconsin as a freshman -- but Tony Jones had a higher average, 23.8 yards per return against Mark's 19.8. Jones should probably get the responsibility, to give Mark's legs a rest, and it's not like he's a slowpoke, neither.
Not every facet of Northwestern's special teams is perfect. In fact, the kickoff game is downright bad.
But NU is nationally elite in two facets of the special teams game, and well above average in the third. And the fourth and fifth are rife for change: NU can install a new kickoff man and put in Tony Jones as the fulltime kick returner to try to maximize potential. And quite frankly, I'd value placekicking above any of the other aspects, with punting (where NU is quite good) second, punt returns (which can quickly turn poor field position into good field position, or a touchdown) third, and the kickoffs (you pretty much always get the ball between your 15 and your 30, only really dangerous in the scenario of a touchdown, which is less likely to happen off a kickoff than a punt) last.
When you average it all out, Northwestern has to be near the top of the pack overall in special teams.
Apologies, but... good special teams is a special thing to have. It won't come up often in previews and stuff, but it will make Northwestern significantly better as a team. And (Venric) mark my words: NU will win a game, if not more than one, because of it this year. So let's not ignore it, aight?
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