Wisconsin has benefited from dynamic special teams play in its two season-opening victories. The Badgers have returned a blocked field goal for a touchdown, downed four punts inside the 20, not allowed a single punt return, allowed just 17.2 yards per kick return and have averaged 17 yards per punt return.
The Badgers' special teams were a sore spot in recent seasons. The rejuvenation this year is due primarily to the development of two young kickers and the willingness of a number of veteran players to perform on special teams.
"Many times, you're trying to put young players in there or you have older players that don't really want to be there," head coach Barry Alvarez said. "The young guys aren't quite ready so you have a constant change every week on your punt return, your kick return. All those teams are you're changing people and it's hard to get better if there's a constant flow of different people playing."
That has not been the case this season.
"We've got a bunch of guys who have played before who like to play in special teams," Alvarez said. "And so, consequently, we can have consistency with the depth. With repetitions, you get better. You have more awareness and you can do more as a coach."
Excluding field goal and point-after-touchdown blocks (where the starting defense typically remains on the field) at least nine starters have also played on at least one special team, including free safety Jim Leonhard, cornerbacks Bret Bell and Scott Starks, linebackers Dontez Sanders and Reggie Cribbs, wide receiver Brandon Williams, tight ends Owen Daniels and Jason Pociask and fullback Matt Bernstein. What is more, the pieces of the special teams puzzle, whether veterans or lively younger players, have remained steady this season.
"Some of our teams, we've been consistent with it. I can remember we've had starters be involved," Alvarez said. "They wanted to be involved. I can remember going back to Donnel Thompson and (Jason) Doering and all those guys, they all played it and so, consequently, we were probably pretty consistent. But I would say over the 15 years, more years than not, you're changing personnel every week."
Consistency has led to aptitude and success.
"It is tiring but it's good just being a part of the team," Sanders said. "I just love playing, so it's fun for me."
"Some people (think) it is just for people who don't start," Starks said. "I like playing on special teams. That's where a lot of momentum changes is special teams."
Momentum changes, such as Jim Leonhard's blocked field goal return for a touchdown in Wisconsin's 18-3 win over UNLV Saturday.
"I think any time you want your best 11 on the field: in offense, defense or special teams," Lee said. "Now the next step is to develop depth behind those guys on the special teams."
"My whole thing on special teams: it's attitude and effort," Alvarez said. "Anybody can do a lot of it. If you're a good enough athlete to be here on a scholarship or good enough athlete to be on the field, you ought to be able to execute through those special teams, but it's about effort and the attitude that you bring with you."
It also helps that the Badgers have added the booming legs of redshirt freshman punter Ken DeBauche and true freshman kickoff specialist Taylor Mehlhaff to their repertoire. Mehlhaff has recorded touchbacks on five of his nine kickoffs this season and opponents' best starting field position following a kickoff is the 24.
DeBauche has not allowed a single punt return this season. He is averaging 41.2 yards per punt, with four downed inside the 20, two landing for touchbacks and two resulting in a fair catch.
Special teams: a starting proposition
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