WASHINGTON - There was a time, not so long ago, that the University of Wisconsin’s special teams were cringe worthy.
Not only did the Badgers lack pop in the return game, Wisconsin has trouble limiting big returns, punting with consistency and kicking with accuracy. That is no longer the case.
While head coach Paul Chryst is well known as an offensive guru, his love and dedication to special teams is a close second, which can be seen in the number of starters who have joined all four units to help the Badgers make a statement.
“It’s something we take to heart and is very important to all of us,” said senior receiver Alex Erickson, one of the many starters who contribute regularly on special teams. “You see (Michael) Caputo out there, (Joe) Schobert, (Vince) Biegel and a lot of other starters out there. Younger guys see the older guys out there, they know it’s more than just a spot to get on the field for the first time and get some experience. It’s a real experience and guys take it serious."
Thanks to a combination of starters and dedicated reserves, not to mention starting every practice with special teams work, the units have improved across the board in Chryst’s first season, especially in the areas of kick coverage.
The Badgers rank second in the Big Ten Conference and sixth nationally in limiting opponents to 16.0 yards per kickoff. That average was 19.0 yards last season. Until last weekend, Wisconsin was one of only two teams in the country (Marshall) that hadn’t allowed a kick return of more than 30 yards.
That’s allowed the Badgers to force their opponents to start, on average, at the 22.9-yard line, the third-best showing among Football Bowl Subdivision teams behind Boston College (22.3) and Ohio State (22.7). And with Wisconsin’s defense leading the country in scoring (11.0 ppg), it’s turned into a solid combination for Wisconsin.
“Guys are really taking a lot of pride in it,” said Erickson, as Wisconsin is also allowing 5.3 yards per punt return, down from 8.1 a season ago.
Those trends figure to be strongly tested Saturday when the Badgers (7-2, 4-1 Big Ten) make their first-ever trip to play at Maryland (2-6, 0-4).
The Terrapins lead the Big Ten and rank fourth nationally in punt return average at 19.1 per attempt. They also stand third in the league and 15th in the nation in kickoff returns at 25.1 yards per try.
A big reason for that success is junior cornerback William Likely, a first-team All-Big Ten pick last season whose instincts and speed are deadly for teams. Although only 5-7 and 175 pounds, Likely has returned two punts for TDs and had 220 kick return yards last week at Iowa, including a 100-yard return for a touchdown.
“We are going to be challenged in a big way this week,” said Chryst. “That's going to be a big part of this game is those coverage units.”
Special teams are a big deal for Chryst, a reason why he hired Chris Haering to coach only special teams. In past years the Badgers have had multiple coaches handle the jobs, sometimes having as many as four assistants coach an individual unit.
There have been no such distractions with Haering, who is constantly tinkering with the schemes and formations.
“He owns it all himself,” said Erickson. “Guys have really got really comfortable with his coaching style. The way is portrayed over all four phases stays the same. Special teams is his thing, and he knows what he’s talking about.”
Chryst said that the special teams play of Wisconsin’s last two opponents – Illinois and Rutgers – will have prepared the Badgers for this weekend. That’s good news considering senior punter Drew Meyer is on one of the best two game stretches of his career.
After posting a season-best 46.8-yard average on his five punts at Illinois, his highest mark in almost two years, Meyer has excelled at pinning opponents deep the last two weeks. Illinois’ average starting field position after a Meyer punt in the second half was its own 11.4 yard line. Rutgers had an average starting field position of its own 12.6 yard line following a punt.
Wisconsin’s kickoff specialists – first Andrew Endicott and now Jack Russell – have also delivered for the most part but will be tested.
“It's ball placement, it's leveraging the football, it's getting in there,” said Chryst. “One area we’ve got to get better at this week in, it's finishing the tackles on our kickoff coverage unit.”
Wisconsin hasn't allowed a kickoff return for TD since 2011 (Duane Bennett, Minnesota) or a punt return for a score since 2012 (Corey Brown, Ohio State). With the Badgers giving up little on defense, Wisconsin doesn’t want a big play to alter the game’s momentum away from its corner.
“I think we've done well in some areas, but there's specifics that we've got to get better at,” said Chryst. “We need to address those and clean them up, because I think this is maybe to date the biggest challenge we have.”