The most dangerous special teams units in Big Ten: Here's where Michigan football, MSU rank

Chris Solari, Detroit Free Press
·6 min read

They can be the difference in starting field position. The difference between a touchback and a runback. The difference between a two-point loss and a one-point win.

Yet the special teams’ importance often gets overlooked by casual football fans.

There are some constants back, some key interconference transfers, a lot of Australian punters and the return of electric Rondale Moore at Purdue to give some juice to watching the specialists this fall.

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14. Maryland

The buzz: The Terps return both kick specialists, though P Colton Spangler is in competition with Anthony Pecorella. K Joseph Petrino made just 2 of 5 FG attempts last season, none longer than 33 yards while having one blocked. Two true freshmen, Isaiah Jacobs and Rakim Jarrett, are expected to handle returning kicks, while Jeshaun Jones takes over as punt returner.

13. Nebraska

The buzz: Not much is known about how the Cornhuskers will approach their special teams, which struggled mightily last year. Nebraska had the worst kickoff coverage unit and next-to-last in kickoff returns. P William Przystup is a Michigan State transfer who had some success late in 2018 and handled kickoff duty for the Huskers last year.

Minnesota  kicker Michael Lantz (38) kicks a field goal during the Outback Bowl at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla., on Wednesday, Jan. 1, 2020. Minnesota leads Auburn 24-17 at halftime.
Minnesota kicker Michael Lantz (38) kicks a field goal during the Outback Bowl at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla., on Wednesday, Jan. 1, 2020. Minnesota leads Auburn 24-17 at halftime.

12. Minnesota

The buzz: K Michael Lantz in an injury-shortened 2019 went 8 of 11 on FG tries as a true freshman. Freshman Australian P Mark Crawford is a 26-year-old former rugby player. It remains an open competition for both return jobs after Demetrius Douglas quit football earlier this month.

11. Northwestern

The buzz: Riley Lees returns after averaging 22.0 yards on kick returns and 7.4 yards on punt returns last season. K Charlie Kuhbander was 10 of 14 on FG attempts last year and has averaged 72.0% in his first three seasons. The Wildcats also welcome grad transfer P Derek Adams, who averaged 43.1 yards last season at Kent State.

10. Wisconsin

The buzz: Losing KR Aron Cruickshank to transfer damages the special teams unit, which also must find a new punter and kickoff specialist. K Collin Larsh made 12 of 18 FG tries but struggled from beyond 30 yards. PR Jack Dunn led the Big Ten with 20 returns last season, averaging 9.0 yards.

Michigan State kicker Matt Coghlin prepares to kick a field goal, which he missed, during the first quarter against Indiana at Spartan Stadium, Sept. 28, 2019.
Michigan State kicker Matt Coghlin prepares to kick a field goal, which he missed, during the first quarter against Indiana at Spartan Stadium, Sept. 28, 2019.

9. Michigan State

The buzz: K Matt Coghlin struggled with accuracy but still made 22 of 32 attempts to rank second in makes per game. The Spartans will break in a new P in UTEP grad transfer Mitchell Crawford. And their return game, which has languished the past decade, could see a boost from Jayden Reed and Jalen Nailor.

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8. Indiana

The buzz: PR Whop Philyor is a burner who can make people miss, while KR David Ellis also is back. P Hayden Whitehead is back after averaging 42.5 yards in 2019. Returning K Charles Campbell hit a critical 41-yard FG against Purdue as a true freshman late last season and takes over full time for Logan Justus.

7. Penn State

The buzz: Losing KJ Hamler to the NFL draft dings the return game. Jahan Dotson will take over punt returns, with Devyn Ford and Lamont Wade handling kicks. Jordan Stout also adds punting this fall to his kickoff duties from a year ago. K Jake Pinegar made 11 of 12 FG attempts last season, though he has not connected from 50 yards out or longer.

6. Rutgers

The buzz: P Adam Korsak is a weapon, a second-team All-Big Ten pick who averaged 43.8 yards in 2019. However, the Scarlet Knights enter the season with a competition at K and uncertainty in the return game. Wisconsin transfer Aron Cruickshank, who scored two TDs and averaged 25.9 yards on kick returns, could provide a jolt.

FILE - In this Sept. 9, 2017, file photo, Illinois punter Blake Hayes (14) punts the ball during an NCAA college football game against Western Kentucky, in Champaign, Ill. The Big Ten Conference knows the value of having good punters, and they are sometimes willing to go a long way to get them. Hayes is a former Australian rules football player who trained at ProKick Australia before coming to the United States.  (AP Photo/Bradley Leeb, File)
FILE - In this Sept. 9, 2017, file photo, Illinois punter Blake Hayes (14) punts the ball during an NCAA college football game against Western Kentucky, in Champaign, Ill. The Big Ten Conference knows the value of having good punters, and they are sometimes willing to go a long way to get them. Hayes is a former Australian rules football player who trained at ProKick Australia before coming to the United States. (AP Photo/Bradley Leeb, File)

5. Illinois

The buzz: P Blake Hayes was first-team All-Big Ten with a 44.6-yard average. The Illini also led the Big Ten in both punting average and kickoff coverage last season. K James McCourt emerged as a strong-legged weapon with three of his 13 FG from beyond 50 yards, including a 57-yarder. The Illini must find new pieces at KR and PR.

4. Purdue

The buzz: Getting Rondale Moore back from an injury that cost him last season gives the Boilermakers a dynamic weapon in the return game, assuming he will remain in those roles he held in 2018. K J.D. Dillinger hit 81.3% of his FG attempts, while P Blake Cormier returns after averaging 40.2 yards as a freshman in 2019.

3. Michigan

The buzz: Ronnie Bell is expected to replace Donovan Peoples-Jones at PR. KR Gilles Jackson scored a TD and ranked fourth in the Big Ten at 25.9 yards per return last season. K Quinn Nordin and Jake Moody combined to go 16 of 22 on FG attempts and made 46 of 47 PAT tries. P Will Hart had a down season in 2019 but still averaged 44.2 yards.

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Michigan's Quinn Nordin reacts after an extra point during the first half against Western Michigan Saturday, Sept. 8, 2018, at Michigan Stadium.
Michigan's Quinn Nordin reacts after an extra point during the first half against Western Michigan Saturday, Sept. 8, 2018, at Michigan Stadium.

2. Ohio State

The buzz: K Blake Haubeil and P Drue Chrisman are the most experienced and best weapons in the kicking game coming back this season. Haubeil led the conference with 124 points and made all 85 of his PATs while going 13 o 15 on FG attempts. PR Garrett Wilson also and KR Demario McCall also are back.

1. Iowa

The buzz: K Keith Duncan is a returning All-Big Ten first-teamer whose accuracy (29 of 34, 85.3%) is outstanding. KR Ihmir Smith-Marsette is a threat to get to the end zone on every return, scoring twice and ranking first in the Big Ten and fourth nationally with a 29.6-yard average on 17 returns. PR Nico Ragaini averaged 10.7 yards on his nine returns, second-most in the Big Ten last season, while Max Cooper also has experience. Australian freshman Tory Taylor takes over at punter.

Contact Chris Solari: csolari@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @chrissolari. Read more on the Michigan State Spartans and sign up for our Spartans newsletter.

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This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Where Michigan football, MSU rank among Big Ten special teams units