Standing on the sidelines in Orlando, Florida, Badgers punter Brad Nortman watched Florida State's Graham Gano punt five times in the 2008 Champs Sports Bowl and put four inside the 20-yard line. His first three punts in the first quarter all landed inside the three-yard line, momentum that was major in the game and earned him the game's most valuable player award.
"He set the bar pretty high for punters everywhere," Norman said. "I wanted to have a season like that."
Nortman joins fellow junior kicker Philip Welch as returning three-year starters into a Wisconsin special teams unit that doesn't have much change over, but needs a makeover.
Nortman improved as his season wore on. He averaged 42 yards per punt last season, ranking third in the conference, putting 17 of his 49 punts inside the 20-yard line and booted nine longer than 50 yards. More importantly, Garo's performance evidently inspired Nortman. In the 09 Champs Bowl, Nortman landed three of his five punts inside the 20 and pounded one 57 yards, helping set up UW's first score.
After spending the offseason improving his steps and his techniques, Nortman, who will have the comfort of working against with junior long snapper Kyle Wojta, is poised for another solid season.
Wotja will also hopefully help push Welch back to the more consistent approach he had his freshman season. After making 20-of-24 attempts (83.3 percent), Welch finished the season 17-of-24 (70.8 percent) on field goal attempts and made 47 of 49 PATs, finishing third overall in the conference in scoring.
Welch missed his first three attempts of the season, but came back with a 57-yard kick against Fresno State, the longest in Camp Randall Stadium history and second longest in school history, and the game-winning boot in double overtime.
Still, the thoughts that linger are the 33-yard miss against Ohio State and the 38-yard miss against Iowa, the latter of which changed the complexion of the contest. Fans also don't remember Welch making nine of his last 10 attempts as much as missing two kicks in Hawaii, getting replaced by linebacker Chris Borland, who kicked the last three PATs.
Things didn't get easier on Welch when the Badgers switched to the Wilson GST football, a ball he was not shy about criticizing. Welch silenced his own doubts when he split the uprights on four straight kicks in the spring game, making from 27, 33, 41 and 47 yards.
"I have been hitting it pretty good and I guess getting back into it, gaining some more confidence," Welch said. "I have changed my form a lot because we changed balls. If I mess up at all, the ball doesn't go anywhere. I've had to really go back to the basics. I can't kick the ball as far, but my accuracy has really increased."
On kickoffs, Welch averaged 65.5 yards per kick, and 12 of his 79 kicks were touchbacks, a marked improvement over his freshman year when he averaged 62.6 yards and had five touchbacks. That improvement was under Head Coach Bret Bielema. Now Welch will have a new special teams coach.
Defensive Line Coach Charlie Partridge, who Bielema originally wanted to name special teams coordinator when he first hired him, felt comfortable with the status of the defensive line to run both punt and kickoff coverage. New Secondary Coach Chris Ash will handle punt return and punt block unit while Tight End Coach Joe Rudolph will handle kickoff return.
Greg Jackson was originally slated to handle that role, but Bielema wanted to get his new assistant time to get acclimated to the program. Jackson will help on all four units while Bielema had no qualms about giving more work to Rudolph.
"He's one the rising stars in this profession," Bielema said of Rudolph. "To give him something that allows him to take a coordinator-type of position and to see what he does with it … I am not oblivious to the fact that Paul Chryst is a very good coach and I have to prepare for the unexpected. I want to see what Joe does in that type of situation."
Rudolph will have his hands full, as the Badgers ranked tenth in the conference in kickoff returns with a 19.2-yard average, a number that wide receiver David Gilreath takes personally. Although he finally got the monkey off his back by returning a 68-yard punt for a touchdown against Northwestern, Gilreath's struggles were well documented.
On kickoffs, Gilreath averaged only 23.7 yards per return. On punts, he could only manage 5.6 yards. Take away that 68-yard return and Gilreath only managed 1.97 yards per return on his punts, numbers that have to change to make Wisconsin a better team.
The likely scenario
In terms of the punter and kicker, expect Nortman and Welch, respectively, to handle the starting job for the third straight season. Even so, keep your eye on incoming Menomonee Falls kicker Kyle French. Although signed as a preferred walk-on, Bielema told French that he would be on scholarship every year he was the starting kicker. Competing for a chance at full playing time and money is surely motivating.
Gilreath will probably be given a shot to return kicks one more time, seeing as he has the most experience. If he falters, expect senior Isaac Anderson or junior Nick Toon to have a look, as both were put on the kickoff unit last season and fielded punts during spring practice.