Fall Camp Preview: Special Teams

With fall camp set to open today, Badger Nation breaks down each position for the 2011 season. Although Wisconsin needs to find a new kick returner, the Badgers should feel confident in having kicker Philip Welch and punter Brad Nortman back in the fold.

MADISON – On the list of priorities University of Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema has to sort out during fall camp, special teams is on the low end. For the fourth straight season, Bielema will have the luxury of relying on kicker Philip Welch and punter Brad Nortman to handle the kicking duties, providing a sense of confidence and stability.

However, while Bielema knows what his kicker is capable of, and that's why he is looking for more.

"He's got to be able to handle the pressure, be consistent where we are at and I think he's got one of the stronger legs I've been around," Bielema said of Welch. "He's got to learn to be accurate with it and going into his senior year, it'll be important for him to do so."

Welch has made at least 17 field goals in each of his first three seasons, is second in school history in field goal percentage (77.1 percent) and third in field goals made (54) and career points (315). But the problem is that Welch has started to show some kinks in his armor. He missed a critical 39-yard field goal that would have made a difference in the Rose Bowl, and missed all three of his field goal attempts in the spring game.

"(Last season was a success), except for the miss 39-yarder in the field goal, which was just a little unlucky," Welch said. "Other than that, I was 100 percent within 40 yards, which is pretty good. I would have liked to make some of the longer field goals, but it was pretty good."

Two big advantages that Welch holds are his confidence and his short memory. Before every game, Bielema usually ask Welch what distance he feels confident with depending on the direction. The head coach usually gets a comment along the lines of '60 yards both ways.' Welch is also quick to forget about mistakes, like the kick in the Rose Bowl. His main goal heading into the season is to improve on his kickoffs to give UW's defense an even bigger advantage.

"I still need more power on my kickoffs, so I am still progressing on that," Welch said. "I am nowhere close to where I want to be. I want to be a lot better than I am, so I am probably working harder than I ever have leading up into my senior year. I can see that I don't have much time left and I have to get moving."

Nortman finished last season third in school history for average punt yards (42.1), but didn't punt enough times to qualify in the NCAA statistics. UW's offense was that good. What Nortman was remembered for is a pair of perfectly timed fake punts, one against Iowa on a fourth-and-four that set up Wisconsin's game-winning touchdown, and another in the Rose Bowl.

When it comes to the special teams, Bielema will have even less to worry about than in years past when the head coach always tried to meddle in special teams. After spreading the special team duties between his assistants over the last few seasons, Bielema's hire of DeMontoe Cross, who spent the previous five seasons with Buffalo Bills and has experience with coaching special teams, as Wisconsin's special teams coordinator is key.

"Coach Charlie Partridge (punt) and coach Joe Rudolph (kick return) had good units last year so he (Bielema) didn't want to change that right away," Cross said. "I am going to be doing punt return and kickoff and I just want to make some strides as a group and make sure we're all doing the same thing on Saturdays and have some success."

To have success, Wisconsin will need to find a return specialist to the caliber of what David Gilreath did over the last four years, departing as the Big Ten Conference's career kickoff return yardage leader and will be remembered for his kickoff return for a touchdown that set the tone for UW's victory over Ohio State last season. Look for Jared Abbrederis or Kenzel Doe to take over the role. Doe impressed the coaching staff with his maturity and blazing speed, two things that could give UW a huge advantage in the field-position game.

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