Special....and vital

The many kicking games incorporated within football are central to a team's success. The Badgers special teams were for the most part solid last season. This year, they should be improved, and potentially in more flux than any other area of the team. Part 12 of a 14-part series.

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Wisconsin's special teams were solid in general last season with one glaring exception. Punter R.J. Morse struggled throughout the season, averaging just 37.4 yards per punt, the lowest total among starting punters in the Big Ten. The Badgers paltry team average of 36.1 was also last in the conference.


The coverage units, though, were very good, quite near exceptional. Wisconsin tied Iowa for the fewest yards allowed per punt return last year at 2.5 and was second to Iowa with a 17.1 kickoff return yards per attempt (Iowa yielded 15.8).


Kicker Mike Allen struggled at times, but put it together as the season went on, hitting all 30 of his extra point attempts and 12 of 19 field goals, including the 37-yard game winner in overtime versus Colorado.


Jim Leonhard set a Wisconsin record with 434 punt return yards and finished second in the Big Ten with a 12.1 yard per return average (Penn State's Bryant Johnson averaged 12.9). The Badgers kick return game was below average, but freshman Brandon Williams tallied a respectable 20.9 yards per return, setting a school record with 670 kickoff return yards.


All the key components return this season—Leonhard, Williams, Allen, Morse, the vast majority of the coverage units, and long snapper Matt Katula—and some notable additions have been made.


Freshman Kenneth DeBauche had a strong fall camp and pushed Morse to the brink. Morse is listed as the official No. 1, but he will likely be on a tight leash this year. Morse looked improved in camp, though it is tougher to gauge specialists since the bulk of their practice is away from the rest of the team. Morse's consistency appeared improved in live scrimmage work. Leg strength has never been the issue; Morse simply shanked too many his first two seasons. Morse is not going to challenge for any awards, but he looks adequate and should give the Badgers an average punting game this season, a vast improvement on last year. One concern is that Morse's release still looks a little slow, though it is improved as well. If Morse falters, though, DeBauche will step in. How the freshman will play in a game situation is anyone's guess, but he was neck-and-neck with Morse throughout camp. Freshman Paul Standring is listed No. 3 at punter.


Allen's confidence was drastically improved last spring and that seems to have carried over. Allen improved dramatically between his freshman and sophomore seasons and now looks set to become a dependable kicker. Senior Scott Campbell will again handle kickoff duties and provides insurance behind Allen. Campbell regularly boomed kickoffs into the end zone this fall and looked very comfortable as a place kicker. Freshman Matt Domonkos provides added depth. Standring could also serve as a kicker. Reserve quarterback Matt Schabert will serve as the team's holder.


Leonhard and Williams return atop the return depth chart, with Williams listed No. 2 behind Leonhard at punt returner and the duo juxtaposed atop the kick return depth chart. Each, however, will likely make room at some point this season for super speedy freshman Ernest Mason, currently listed No. 3 at both spots. Mason rotated in as a returner throughout fall camp and was receiving equal reps with Williams at kick returner during camp's final week. Mason is a dynamic athlete who should excel as a return man.


Matt Katula enters his third season as the team's top long snapper. His reserve is another Brookfield native, true freshman Steve Johnson.


The coverage units return nearly every player from last season's solid performance. Punt and kick coverage should be even better this season with more experience among the first string and an influx of speed from freshmen such as Roderick Rogers and Johnny White, who could work into the depth on the coverage units.


Wisconsin coach Barry Alvarez has always stressed the importance of having championship-caliber special teams if you are to have a championship-caliber team. The Badgers 2003 specialists are a few notches below the better units Wisconsin has put on display, but they have improved by leaps and bounds from just two seasons ago and could well develop into an elite group.

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