It didn’t take long for sophomore Rafael Gaglianone to prove that he was worthy of a scholarship offer that he received during the 2014 recruiting cycle. Quickly becoming a fan favorite after hitting a 51-yard field goal in the season opener against LSU, Gaglianone hit 14 consecutive field goals to end the season, giving UW fans hope that they have a legitimate kicking threat for the next three seasons.
Beating out incumbent Jack Russell during fall camp for the job, Gaglianone showed he could be relied on from long distances throughout the season, as he connected on another 50-yard try against Iowa to become the first freshman in school history to hit multiple 50-yard field goals in the same season.
He also came up big in crunch time. The kicks weren’t the toughest distance wise –29 and 25 yards – but the pressure surrounding Gaglianone’s two kicks to tie the game in regulation and put the Badgers ahead in overtime in the Outback Bowl had been kicks that had been far from sure things in previous seasons.
When both kicks sailed between the uprights, finishing his season 19-for-22 on kicks, Gaglianone and his unit have finally formed a winning combination.
“You can’t look just as the kicker, as so many kicks didn’t have any trouble getting blocked and our protection was perfect through kicks, field goals and extra points,” said Gaglianone. “Perfect holds and perfect snaps all the time just makes it so easy for me. Walking into this program was a good opportunity for me.”
Gaglianone’s 86.3 field goal percentage was the best at Wisconsin since Matt Davenport’s 90.5 percent in 1998. Not to mention that Gaglianone converted all 14 of his field goal attempts over the last nine games of the season, but none were bigger then the two he hit against Auburn in the bowl win.
Special teams coach Chris Haering has a couple other kickers at his disposal, too. Russell is a senior and 9-for-15 in his career, and Andrew Endicott should remain as the kickoff specialist. With 37 career touchbacks and averaging 60.3 yards a kick, Endicott saw his kickoff improve 3.2 yards from his freshman to sophomore season.
While the Badgers have some capable legs on the roster, Gaglianone will be the one counted on to make sure Wisconsin comes away with points, as capitalizing on opportunities will be critical in helping Wisconsin win the close games this season.
Unlike the kicking game, the punting unit did not find the same success in 2014 with junior Drew Meyer. With Meyer hitting career lows in all major punting categories, it got to a point where former head coach Gary Andersen occasionally called upon quarterback Bart Houston to execute rugby style punts. It was hit and miss tactic and one Haering likely won’t use this season.
That means Meyer has to get back on track. The in-state prospect saw his punting average dip from 38.6 to 37.4 yards, a far cry from the 41.5 yards he averaged his freshman year. The fact is Meyer has regressed as a punter since he was a consensus honorable mention All-Big Ten selection, a troubling trend. Meyer has shown he is capable of being a consistent punter, but fall camp will be critical for UW’s senior kicker to regain his leg strength and accuracy.
Outside of Houston, no one else for Wisconsin has punted in a collegiate game. Redshirt freshman P.J. Rosowski will likely be the backup to Meyer and could be challenged by freshman walk-on Connor Allen from Brookfield East High School. Allen has a nice resume coming in ranked the number one punter in Wisconsin and the No.36 punter in the nation.
The biggest task Haering has is finding a replacement for return man Kenzel Doe. Handling both kickoff and punt return duties, Doe finished his career second in kickoff return average (25.5) and seventh in punt return yards (481).
Wisconsin tried a variety of players in the spring who could fill that void. Serge Trezy, Reggie Love, George Rushing, Natrell Jamerson and Alex Erickson among others were all given chances to fill the void. With the competition still wide open, Wisconsin could use wide receiver Andrew James and cornerback Titus Booker, a pair of true freshmen who are known for their speed.
Booker finished second in 100 meters at Illinois Class 3A state meet in 10.64 and fifth in the 200 meters in 21.55 as a junior. He also played running back for Grayslake North High School, which will help him with vision and finding the open lane.
James competed for Team USA in 400 meters at the 2014 Summer Youth Olympic Games in Nanjing, China, where he won gold medal with a time of 48.25. He also took bronze in the 200 meters in 21.50 at the U.S. Youth Olympic Trials.
After having one kick return for 21 yards last season, Jamerson could be an intriguing option to replace Doe on kickoff returns. Wisconsin can roll the dice like it did with Jared Abbrederis and put its top receiver – Alex Erickson – on punt return. Unless someone else shows that they are capable of filling that responsibility, Erickson will likely get the first crack due to his ability to consistently catch the football.
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