Punting on NU

With punter Mike Sadler's recent commitment to Michigan State, Northwestern's top two special teams prospects from the 2010 class punted on the Wildcats. Now that Sadler and Florida kicker Michael Palardy have committed elsewhere, Purple Reign takes a look at NU's kicking and punting game heading into this season and beyond.

Well, isn't that just a kick in the pants.

Punter Mike Sadler's commitment to Michigan State this week means that Northwestern missed out on its top two special teams targets of the 2010 class. By committing elsewhere, Sadler, a three-star prospect, joined kicker Michael Palardy of Florida, who was also offered by the Wildcats before committing to Tennessee.

Ranked by Scout as the No. 2 punter in his class, NU was one of the first schools to offer Sadler. In a June interview with Purple Reign, Sadler confirmed that Northwestern was a finalist for his services, but the Grand Rapids, Mich., product opted for the Spartans instead.

"It is nice that (Northwestern) noticed me early," he said, "and it's good to know that they want you and they're willing to go out and recruit you a little earlier than other prospects."

Of his visit to Evanston, he added, "It was really nice down there. The campus is beautiful. I loved the coaching staff, they're very personable. Coach Fitz is awesome, and you can't get a much better balance of academics and athletics."

Alas, he's heading to East Lansing.

Northwestern was also spurned by Palardy, who chose to stay in SEC country by committing to the Vols. Scout ranks Palardy as a four-star recruit, and while he may have been a stretch for the Cats – he is the No. 1-rated kicker in the nation – he did say that Northwestern was in the mix as recently as June.

But it didn't work out for NU.

"I'm a southern boy at heart," Palardy said of his commitment to the Volunteers. "The SEC is best conference in the country, there is no better football played anywhere."

It's not as though NU's special teams future depended on Sadler and Palardy coming to Evanston. But for Northwestern, which is increasingly competing with traditional powers for recruits, nabbing either one of Palardy or Sadler would have been a boon.

The Wildcats' punter this season will be Stefan Demos, who, as a junior-to-be, will need to be replaced after the 2010 season; that would have been Sadler's freshman campaign.

For the time being, at least, the Cats' punting duties are in good hands with Demos, who has been the punter the last two seasons. Of his 64 punts in 2008, Demos landed 26 inside the opponents' 20 yard-line. That 40.6 percent clip was tops among Big Ten punters, so the immediate future looks bright.

Like a sky-high punt, the kicking game is up a little more up in the air heading into '09. Gone is Amado Villarreal, who was an All-Big Ten honorable mention as a senior last season after nailing 20 of 25 field goals. Demos may handle kickoffs and field goals this season as well, although he has yet to be involved in the kicking game at Northwestern.

That inexperience might just leave the door open for freshman Jeff Budzien, a three-star kicker from Hartland, Wis., who counts as a recent success story for NU's special teams recruiting. As a senior last year, Budzien hit 63-of-65 PATs and booted 70-of-88 kickoffs for touchbacks.

So even without Palardy – who was 76-of-78 on PAT last season and blasted 98 percent of his kickoffs for touchbacks – there is a young, highly-touted kicker in place for the foreseeable future. Still, judging from scouting reports, Palardy and his No. 1 class ranking would have been a special catch for the Cats.

Also on the Cats' roster is redshirt freshman walk-on Steve Flaherty. As a junior in high school, Flaherty booted 9-of-12 field goals and 57-of-61 PAT's. And as a senior, he drilled 6-of-7 field goals and 58-of-62 PAT's. Flaherty, a Chicago native, originally planned to commit to Michigan State before opting to stay closer to home.

Again, it's not as though Northwestern is scrambling to find legs. Budzien figures to be the long-term solution in the kicking game, and Demos has proven himself as a capable punter the past two seasons.

But having targeted a few bit-time prospects in the 2010 class, NU may again be looking for special special-teamers next time around.

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