Preview: Special Teams

Every team needs production from its special teams unit, and Northwestern is no exception. gives a look at the Wildcats' specialists.

Jeff Budzien (Junior—PK)

It's hard to put too much stock into what Budzien accomplished last season. He only attempted 10 field goals and made just six of them, ranking last among Big Ten kickers with his 60 percent make rate. To write off Budzien's 2011 campaign as ineffective based solely on that metric is misguided analysis. While he only made two more field goals than he missed, it's possible that Budzien just never attempted enough kicks to find his rhythm. With such a small sample size, it's near impossible to pinpoint one main pitfall.

Perhaps coach Fitzgerald just never felt comfortable with Budzien, and that would help to explain why NU led the Big Ten last season with 28 fourth-down conversion attempts. The Wildcats converted just over 60 percent of those, a rate that ranked second among Big Ten teams. Still, that's an awfully high number of fourth down attempts, and if Fitzgerald had more faith in Budzien, he may be less inclined to keep the offense on the field in those situations. Giving Budzien more opportunities—particularly early in the season, before conference play—would offer a larger sample size to assess his true value and generate the confidence he needs to be successful.

The only way that those missed fourth down attempts turn into field goal tries is if Budzien proves capable of making longer kicks, a skill he is yet to master. He hit all 50 of his PAT attempts last season, but he needs to extend his range in order to make a larger and more productive impact this season.

Steve Flaherty (Senior—PK)

One of the more underrated and underanalyzed aspects of special teams is kick coverage. What seems like an unorganized horde of tacklers trying to converge on one player in actuality boils down to a combination of good coaching, communication and discipline. It requires sound strategy and positioning as much as it does a deep and well-placed kick. NU ranked eighth among in this category among Big Ten teams last season with an average of 42.6 net yards allowed, much of which owes itself to Flaherty's weak and ill-aimed kick-offs.

If the Wildcats hope to limit return yardage next season, Flaherty must improve his kick distance and accuracy and work with the special teams unit to create a more balanced approach in winning the hugely important field position battle.

Arthur Omilian (RS Freshman—PK)

There's plenty of talent here—Omilian converted was named the 2010 Region 5A North Special Teams Player of the year in 2010 at Pace Academy (GA)—but it's hard to see Omilian getting a significant number of field goal or kick off attempts this season, unless either Flaherty or Budzien prove incapable of handling their jobs.

Brandon Williams (Junior—P)

As poor as Northwestern's kicking game was last season, there's reason to believe that punting will be a strong point this year. Williams returns for his third year as the full-time starter, and while he ranked sixth in the Big Ten in punting average (40.8), he finished the season on a high note while raising that number to 47.6 in November. He cracked the seventh longest punt (77 yards) in NU history in last year's win over Minnesota and even unleashed a rugby-style boot for 65 yards against Army.

More important was the way Williams' accuracy increased as the season progressed. In the Meineke Car Care Bowl, he hit a season-high eight punts, with eight of those landing inside the 20-yd line. Distance is important, for coverage and field position purposes, but equally crucial is the placement, hangtime and control of each punt. Eliminating or minimizing returns with long, high boots that land near, but stay out of the opponent's end zone is a punter's main objective, and Williams increasingly made strides toward that end last season.

If Williams struggles, it could be because he carries over the inconsistency he displayed early last season. His late-season performance suggests otherwise, so the more likely scenario includes him building on the momentum he established in November. Regression—after two full seasons refining his game and gaining loads of valuable experience—is highly unlikely.

Chris Gradone (RS Freshman—P)

The latest St. Xavier (OH) product, Gradone enters his second season—unlike fellow highschool teammate Deonte Gibson—with a small chance of making any sort of meaningful impact, unless Williams suffers an injury.

Pat Hickey (Junior—LS)

After playing in jus two games in 2010, Hickey handled every short and long snap last season, and had little trouble finding a connection with Budzien or Williams. There should be more fluidity and crisp to the snap, hold, kick sequence this year after plenty of reps in spring practice and preseason camp.

Venric Mark (Junior—KR/PR)

When you're small, elusive, explosive and can run by most every defender crossing your path, returning punts and kicks is a nice way to maximize those talents. Which is in large part why Mark has quietly developed into one of the Big Ten's most electrifying return men. He totaled 915 kick return yards last season with an average of 22.9 yards per return while amassing 127 punt return yards at a rate of 15.9 yards per punt, which would have ranked third nationally with a sufficient number of attempts.

He consistently provided excellent field position with his returns, and an emotional boost for the ensuing offensive series. The Johnny "The Jet" Rodgers Return Specialist Award, given annually to the nation's best return man, included Marc on its spring watch list, and rightfully so, as Marc has the physical and mental makeup to make the sort of game-changing plays that have come to define the kick and punt-returning elite.

Punters and kickers would be best served avoiding Marc altogether, but he will get his opportunities this season, and it won't be long before he's changing games with his lightning quick speed and agility. He failed to reach the end zone on any of his returns last season. This year, that's bound to change.

It'll be interesting to see if Fitzgerald opts to divvy up the punt and kick returning duties this season. If Mark sees a bump in his offensive workload—he proved effective on trick plays and short passes last season—he may relinquish a slice of his return duties to preserve his effectiveness on offense. Sophomore cornerback C.J. Bryant, an explosive athlete with plenty of upside, is a possible fill-in candidate, but he's simply not the same home-run threat that Mark is. Sitting Mark bears the huge risk of missing out on the sort of long returns that decide tight games. Weighing the implications of sidelining your best return man while ensuring his long-term health is a tricky dilemma, but nonetheless one Fitzgerald must face.

True Freshmen

Matt Micucci (P/PK)—While he almost certainly will either punt or kick at NU, he's more famous for what he did as a quarterback with Stevenson (IL) high school. Micucci outdueled Matt Alviti, a four-star, 2013 QB committed to NU, in Stevenson's 24-22 victory over Maine South in the 2011 8A state playoffs. He probably won't play this season, though his versatility makes him an intriguing player for the future.

Zak Kucera (P)—Not only did Kucera compile one of the most impressive four-year quarterback stints at West Geauga (OH), he set a school record by posting a 39.1 yards per punt average. The most logical scenario includes Kucera redshirting, learning under Williams and making a run at the starting job once he graduates.

Chris Fitzpatrick (LS)—Don't look now, but Hickey may have some competition as early as this season. Fitzpatrick was rated as the third best long snapper in the 2012 class, according to Scout. Com. He maintained a perfect snapping record—65/65 on field goals, 9/9 on punts and 43/43 on extra points—during his varsity career at Anderson County (KY) high school. As long as no one's botching snaps and both Williams and Budzien feel comfortable with the release and timing, the long snapper competition shouldn't be one of the bigger storylines heading into camp.

Grade: B

Grading out special teams is a tricky proposition. In trying to predict something as fickle as kickers, kick returns and punters, there's a huge margin of error. One thing is certain: the group as a whole must improve from last season's overall subpar performance. From Budzien's weak leg to Williams' inconsistency and on down the line, NU simply isn't talented enough to win games while making critical mistakes on special teams. Most important may be the field position battle. NU is widely regarded as one of the league's worst pass defenses, and opposing Big Ten quarterbacks would be wise to exploit that vulnerability. Forcing opponents to sustain longer drives will limit their damage through the air—not to mention position the secondary to make plays from a position of power, on the opponents' half of the field—and the best way to accomplish that goal is through improved special teams play.

The group will largely resemble last year's unpredictable bunch, only it should take a collective step forward. Williams clearly progressed towards the end of last season, providing better distance and accuracy with his punts. Mark may be NU's most explosive and best overall athlete, and there's no reason why he can't be among the Big Ten's best return men this season. Budzien, despite his shortcomings last season, should improve if given more attempts.

The way it's looking right now, the Wildcats, from a special teams perspective, will be very middle-of-the-pack-ish. Mark, provided he emerges as the sort momentum-changing playmaker most envision, could elevate the group's status on his own merits. All in all, the group—on paper, at least—appears more fit to compete at a high level than last year's ensemble, which is no doubt welcome news for the team as a whole.

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