Spring preview: Special teams

Kicking game should be excellent in 2006

Starters returning: Junior place kicker Taylor Mehlhaff (14 of 20 on field goals, with a long of 46; made 56 of 58 extra-point attempts; averaged 60.9 yards on 81 kickoffs, with 36 touchbacks), junior punter Ken DeBauche (57 punts for a 44.8-yard average; five touchbacks, 22 inside the 20, long of 59), junior long snapper Steve Johnson.

Other key returnees: Senior kick returner/personal protector Zach Hampton (10 kick returns for 170 yards). Special teams standouts junior Ben Strickland (two-time UW special teams player of the week; scored touchdown on blocked punt recovery; 12 tackles, mostly on special teams) and sophomore Jonathan Casillas (two blocked punts).

Starters departed: Kick and punt returner Brandon Williams.

Other key departures: None.

2005 position coach: Brian Murphy.

2006 position coach: By committee.

Spring storylines

The Badgers' kicking game should be excellent. Punter Ken DeBauche will be a favorite for the Ray Guy award after he followed an impressive freshman season with an All-American-caliber sophomore campaign last year.

Kicker Taylor Mehlhaff improved by leaps and bounds from his true freshman season — when he was a kickoff specialist — to last year, when he added place kicking to this portfolio. Mehlhaff was a good, dependable field-goal kicker and was excellent on kickoffs last year. Expect him to continue to grow this spring, summer and fall, on his way to challenging for All-Big Ten honors.

Reserve punter Paul Standring, kicker/punter Adam Schober, who challenged Mehlhaff for the place kicking job last year, and walk-on kicker Matt Fischer also return.

Long snapper Steven Johnson, who did a solid job taking over for current Baltimore Ravens snapper Matt Katula, is also back for 2006.

However, it will be very difficult to replace Brandon Williams in the return game. Williams was UW's primary kick returner for the past four years, and added punt return duties last season. He was a game-breaking player that opponents feared, going out of their way to avoid kicking him the ball.

The Badgers' effective No. 2 returner last season was tailback Brian Calhoun, but he was never needed in that capacity and he also is not returning in 2006, in any case.

Receivers Jarvis Minton and Marcus Randle El were each part of the competition for the return spots last season and will be favorites for those roles this time around. Randle El returned three punts for 47 yards last season, while Minton had two punt returns for 19 yards.

Redshirt freshman Jerry Butler, the fastest player on the team, is another prime candidate for the return roles. He worked out as both a punt and kick returner during fall camp last year.

Cornerback Antonio Freeman would seem a natural choice with his speed, but he was never a finalist for either spot in the past and he is currently suspended indefinitely from the team for violating UW's student-athlete discipline policy. He pled not guilty this month to a misdemeanor marijuana possession charge.

Several incoming freshmen will be tried as kick or punt returners in the fall.

The Badgers can rely on Zach Hampton as the personal protector/secondary kick returner. He has handled that duty well the past two seasons.

UW's coverage units performed admirably last season, and several players who were stalwarts on those teams last year return, including Strickland, Hampton, Casillas, DeAndre Levy, Aubrey Pleasant and James Kamoku.

Dave Peck and walk-on Andrew Woodward will back up Johnson at long snapper.


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