Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema takes a lot of pride in coaching his special teams unit, but didn't mince words when discussing his kickoff, punt (ranked 55th in the nation with a 35.32 net punting), punt return (55th in net return with 9.21 average) and kickoff return units (119th – dead last – with a 17.14 average).
"We need to get better," Bielema said during the fall. "There's no question that we need to improve."
Other than altering the blocking formation on punts, there haven't been major changes on the special teams, as the specialists - kicker Philip Welch, punter Brad Nortman and returner David Gilreath - have stayed the same, as well. Because of that, the results have been mixed.
Wisconsin is 112th in the country in kickoff returns (18.39 avg), 66th in net punting (35.51 avg) and 101st in punt return (5.69 avg), although that last number doesn't factor into two blocked kicks resulting in Badgers touchdowns.
"I think we are making strides and we are definitely trying," senior special teams leader William Hartmann said, "which leads me to believe we are going to get better every game from here on out."
After his 41.8-yard average ranked sixth in the Big Ten in his freshman season, sophomore punter Brad Nortman has grown accustomed to the new punt formation, registering an average of 44.0 yards or better in six of Wisconsin's last eight games.
"The protection has been great," Nortman said "The guys have really taken in this new formation. I really have no concerns back there. Last year, just because I was knew to the whole experience, I was trying to do things different. Now I am comfortable and it's all good."
The spread punt is designed to allow the Badgers to get into coverage more quickly and efficiently, allowing the unit to recognize whether the opponent is rushing Nortman or choosing to have maximum protection.
The results have worked, as the Badgers have only given up a punt return average of over 10 yards twice this season, and the wall in front of Nortman - J.J. Watt, Patrick Butrym and Jeff Stehle - haven't been pushed back an inch.
"Those guys are beasts," Nortman said. "I think we made a good decision by going to that."
In addition to Bielema, Hartmann, a two-year starter on special teams, has spoken passionately about how a good return or coverage is the first play of the next series for either the offense or the defense.
"It's what I love to do," Hartmann said. "I've learned a lot and I am trying to pass that along to the younger guys. We just need to be perfect and have 11 people playing as one, and big things, good things will come of it."
The Badgers have seen some better results – two blocked punts returned for touchdowns – and the fact that Welch has added more distance to his kickoffs with nine touchbacks, surpassing last year's total of five.
Unfortunately, Welch's added distance has come at a price. The sophomore started the season consistently pushing attempts to right. Once a 2009 preseason first-team All-Big Ten selection, Welch entered the Purdue week just 8-of-14 on field-goal attempts, missing all to the right.
"I've been hitting the ball well in practice, which makes it frustrating," Welch said after a he missed a critical kick against Iowa. "It's frustrating, but I try not to think about it."
Since then, Welch has shorten his back swing, simplifying his approach. The result - he made all his kicks - 32, 42 and 22 yards - against Purdue and his only attempt – 26 yards – against Indiana.
Return man David Gilreath has been the only cause for concern this season returning punts. Gilreath, who has been battling stress fractures in both feet, has a 2.5-yard punt return average ranks him 64th in the nation and his 21.7-yard kickoff return average ranks him 96th (both a minimum of 1.2 punt returns per game).
It's become such a downward trend that Bielema has used receivers Isaac Anderson and Nick Toon to return kicks and experimented last week with former Badger Maurice Moore returning punts after Gilreath took a punt off the facemask, resulting in a UW turnover.
After a season where UW routinely lost the field-position battle, Wisconsin has had an arrival of young, talented athletes – like Chris Borland and David Gilbert – mixed with talented starters – like Lance Kendricks and O'Brien Schofield - that has started to led to some improvement on Bielema's units on the field.
It's easy to measure the differences off the field, too, something that can only help as the Badgers continue to strive for above average.
"Definitely not almost, we are definitely closer," Hartmann said. "As a whole team, as a special teams unit, it's been a great year. We've taken that ‘Count on Me' attitude and I think it shows by the type of season we are having by finishing games. Our attitude has improved on all the units."