Spring wrap-up: Special teams

Part 4 of BadgerNation.com's 11-part look at the 2005 spring football practice season

News and notesWisconsin's place kicking job remains an open competition between Taylor Mehlhaff and Adam Schober.

Steven Johnson has the edge on Dave Peck and Joel Nellis for the right to replace Matt Katula at long snapper.

The Badgers tried a variety of players at each return position and those spots remain anyone's for the taking. Senior receiver Brandon Williams, UW's kick returner for most of the past three seasons, did not do any returning due to a stress injury in his shin that kept him out of most practices, but he will be a leading candidate for each return job in the fall. Other strong possibilities for both jobs are tailback Brian Calhoun and receivers Jarvis Minton and Marcus Randle El. Cornerback Antonio Freeman is also under consideration for each spot and corner Levonne Rowan could serve as the punt returner.

Either Zach Hampton or Matt Bernstein will be the protector on kick returns. Hampton will also serve as one of the gunners on punt coverage, with Jack Ikegwuonu, Ben Strickland, Jeff Holzbauer or Levonne Rowan possibilities for the other spot. Strickland served as the first-team up-back on kick returns, a position Bernstein filled last year.

Spring MVPKen DeBauche. After a very strong redshirt freshman campaign, DeBauche was his normal impressive self throughout spring. The kickers and punters do not work out with the rest of the team during the bulk of practice, so there were few opportunities to view them, but when DeBauche was punting in a scrimmage situation his leg strength and hang time were very impressive. DeBauche as punter and Mehlhaff on kickoffs are the only major special teams positions that are accounted for as the summer approaches.

Springing ahead — Brian Calhoun is the most athletic of the return options and is the most reliable when it comes to catching and securing the ball. The only thing that could hold him back is the fact that he will be the Badgers' top offensive weapon, potentially the team's leading rusher and receiver. Returner too? It is possible. Expect Calhoun to end up with one of the return jobs.

Jarvis Minton looked impressive as both a kick and punt returner. He has good speed and hands. He is not nearly as elusive as Calhoun but he makes sharp cuts and he has good instincts with the ball in his hands.

Taking over for Matt Katula is going to be a tall task and Steven Johnson is not in his league quite yet, but the sophomore looked competent in spring practices.

Pressing questions — The biggest question mark coming out of spring ball is place kicker. Mehlhaff will definitely kickoff again but neither place kicker was able to separate himself from the other. Both Schober and Mehlhaff have very good range, but their accuracy needs improvement. Mehlhaff's miss of a 22-yard attempt in the spring game did not invoke waves of confidence in the kicking game.

Can the Badgers improve their kick returning? This has been a quiet liability for the team in recent seasons. Brandon Williams may be on the verge of setting the school's career kick return yardage record, but he has been far from dynamic in that role the past three seasons. This is not all on Williams, though. UW's blocking on kick returns has left something to be desired. In limited live action work during spring, it is tough to tell whether the Badgers are poised to turn the corner in this regard, but whoever wins the kick return job should have the ability to make something happen if the running lanes are available.

Looking ahead — Expect the place kicking competition to go right down to the wire. If it becomes an ongoing concern during the season, the Badgers may be forced to use whichever kicker wins the battle in practice week to week. Class of 2005 Walk-on Matt Fischer could also work himself into the mix this fall.

Expect the Badgers to lose some ‘hidden yards' in the punt return game this fall. No one, it seems, has ever been as fearless as Jim Leonhard was in the return game and whoever earns that spot in the fall will likely let significantly more punts hit the turf, potentially bouncing in a way that hurts UW's field position.

There are potential future return men in the class of 2005, but players such as tailback Jerry Butler and defensive back/receiver Shane Carter would need to earn a spot in the rotation at their primary position before a return role is considered.

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