Commentary: Special Teams
by Jonathan Hodges

Time to analyze the final phase of Northwestern's 2010 squad: the special teams.

Although this phase of the game is often overlooked, it is one that can have a significant impact on the game since virtually every special teams play is a "swing" play where points or a large swing in field position is involved.  And, as any one who has followed Northwestern over the past few years knows, the 'Cats have not done themselves many favors in this department.  Now time to have a look at each component of this phase.


Senior Stefan Demos will be Northwestern's placekicker in 2010.  For someone who only watched him in the Outback Bowl, that doesn't look like a good thing, but considering his entire body of work as a kicker, the 'Cats should be in very good shape.

Last year, in his only year as NU's placekicker, Demos hit 72% of his 25 field goal attempts.  But, removing two truly awful games from the field goal department (Illinois, where he went 0-for-3 and Auburn, where he went 0-for-2), Demos hit an impressive 90% of his field goals.  Added to that is the fact that he hit two game-winning field goals (against Eastern Michigan and Indiana) and that he has good range (he hit a 49-yarder and went 6-for-11 from outside of 40 yards, with 4 of those misses coming in the aforementioned two bad games).

On extra point tries, he hit 94.4% of 36 kicks, and, interestingly, Northwestern lost the two games in which he missed an extra point (Syracuse, Auburn).  Note that one could argue that those missed extra points played significant roles in both losses as they both came in the fourth quarter of the respective games.

One can definitely argue that his clutch game-winners (mentioned earlier) or lead-extenders (e.g. in the second half of the Iowa game) effectively balanced his shortcomings.  And one significant complaint from last season is that he was over-worked thanks to having to handle punting, placekicking, and kickoffs throughout the year since Northwestern lacked (or Coach Fitzgerald refused to play) another kicker.  It is rather rare to see one kicker handle all duties at this level of football, and that is something that Fitz essentially promised not to continue this season.

In conclusion, NU should be in pretty good hands (or, feet) with Demos handling kicking without the added burden of punting.  He has great range, has shown he can hit clutch kicks, made some all-conference postseason teams last year and preseason teams this year, and has NFL potential.  His relaxed personality should also allow him to move beyond the calamities he experienced late last season and move forward in 2010.

If it comes down to backups, Northwestern has little in the way of experience.  Sophomore Steve Flaherty successfully attempted one extra point last year, and he's listed as the co-backup with redshirt freshman Jeff Budzien, who was a highly rated recruit coming out of high school.  Still, one hopes NU will not have to cross that bridge until the 2011 season rolls around.

Finally, don't discount the fact that Northwestern will have a senior, John Henry Pace, handling the long snapping duties, which can be a significant boon for the punting and placekicking teams as he's had plenty of practice time connecting on those long snaps.


Look for Demos to continue to handle kickoffs as well, as he has shown the ability to get touchbacks from time to time, and also to be rather accurate.  He kicked off all but one time for Northwestern in 2009 and averaged a decent 59.8 yards per kickoff and had just one out of bounds kick (his first of the season, after which he promised not to do it again, a promise that he kept).

Without having to handle punt duty, he should have plenty of leg left to take care of kickoffs and, potentially, get more touchbacks.  If not, again, look for Flaherty or Budzien to fill in; Flaherty was the only other NU player to have a kickoff last year (both his extra point kick and ensuing kickoff came late in the game against Towson in NU's 2009 season opener).

In terms of kickoff return defense, NU ranked 57th nationally last year, allowing 21.4 yards per kick; the 'Cats also allowed one kickoff TD return (to Indiana).  This was significantly worse than 2008, where NU allowed 18.4 yards per kick (12th nationally), but also significantly better than 2007 where NU allowed 24.7 yards per kick (110th nationally).

Fitz likes to keep talent on the field as much as possible, and with a ton of depth on the team this season, look for him to put a lot of talented backups on the kickoff coverage team.  Linebackers like David Nwabuisi and Ben Johnson have started games on defense but also play a significant amount of special teams and have made a name for themselves there.  The depth and speed on this year's team could very well contribute to an upgrade on special teams as a whole, where less-experienced and those who did not win starting spots typically found time on the field.


As mentioned earlier, Fitz has basically stated that he would be moving to a new punter this season, and thankfully so as Demos ranked 98th nationally with 35.0 yards per punt.  Last year, NU often turned to the rugby-style directional punt to limit returns (which wasn't even that effective given that NU allowed a 9.9 yard per punt return average, 72nd nationally), and that is something that very well may change this season with a dedicated punter and more athletic talent to put on the coverage team.

Redshirt freshman Brandon Williams (no relation to Nate and Quentin, who are brothers) will likely be taking over the punting job.  He has no collegiate experience but averaged 39.7 yards per punt in high school (and almost 42 his senior season) and was named to Indiana's all-state squad as punter.  He looks like he has the tools, and if he can follow through the 'Cats will be in better shape on punts in 2010.  Demos is always a backup option here, and Budzien may also be listed on the two-deep as a punter.

As mentioned in the previous section, the Wildcats' depth will likely translate to better and more experienced athletes taking the field on the punt coverage unit and will hopefully help improve Northwestern's measly net punting which ranked 115th last year at 31.7 net yards per punt.

Kickoff Returns

The Wildcats were spotty, at best, on kick returns last year, ranking 89th with a 20.6 yards per kick average.  It is important to note that Northwestern's expected primary kick returner, Stephen Simmons, was injured for a portion of last season and only handled 26 of Northwestern's 57 kick returns.  For his career, Simmons has a solid 24.8 yards per kick return average and a touchdown (Northwestern's only score against Ohio State back in 2007).  Simmons is arguably one of the fastest guys on the team and he has shown the ability to rack up some big returns.  With him consistently returning kicks, the 'Cats should be in good shape.

His backup will reportedly be Jacob Schmidt, who tallied just one return for 12 yards last season.  Schmidt does have reliable hands and makes good decisions with the football, which makes him a solid, albeit not explosive, option returning kicks.  Others who may be used on kick returns include Scott Concannon (who had one return for no yards last year) or Jeravin Matthews (who averaged 17.0 yards per return on 21 returns last year).

Northwestern needs to improve its kick return game, and that should largely be accomplished by focusing in on two regular return men and having one primary returner, which Fitz appears to have already done by naming Simmons and Schmidt, respectively.

Punt Returns

Now time for the biggest enigma of the Fitzgerald era at Northwestern: punt returns.  Here are the punt return numbers for Fitz's four years at the helm at Northwestern:

2006: 7.5 yards per punt return (82nd nationally), 1 touchdown*, 21 yard long
2007: 6.3 yards per punt return (98th nationally), 0 touchdowns, 14 yard long
2008: 8.3 yards per punt return (70th nationally), 0 touchdowns, 51 yard long**
2009: 6.3 yards per punt return (93rd nationally), 0 touchdowns, 16 yard long

*Blocked punt returned for a touchdown against Miami (OH) by FB Erryn Cobb, in Fitz's first game as NU head coach.  The last true punt return TD came in 2005 by Marquice Cole.
**Punt return by Brendan Smith against Illinois, easily the best punt return by NU under Fitz.

The statistics pretty much speak for themselves: Northwestern has been pretty bad at returning punts, mostly due to the lack of a true punt returner.  Instead, Fitz has resorted to his next best options, who have mostly been wide receivers or defensive backs (e.g. Andrew Brewer and Brendan Smith, along with a slew of others).  Thankfully, that may change this season.

The potential starter is true freshman Venric Mark who has, according to all reports, excelled during the preseason practices so far.  He was a kick and punt return specialist in high school and returned 4 for TDs his senior year alone (and had a whopping 7 more called back due to penalty that year).  He could very well be the punt return specialist that Coach Fitz has been looking for.

Also on the depth chart at punt returner are CB Jordan Mabin, an accomplished high school running back who knows how to run with the ball, and sophomore S Hunter Bates who knows how to hang onto the pigskin (he recovered an attempted onside kick by lllinois last year in impressive fashion).  But, it looks like the key may very well be the true freshman Mark, who may revive the long-suffering Northwestern punt return game.


Northwestern looks to be in better shape in the kicking and punting game in 2010 with the addition of a punter to relieve some of Demos' duties.  The coverage teams should see a boost thanks to improved team speed and depth, which will allow Fitz to field better players to try and take down the opponent.  And, finally, the return game should see a boost with a healthy Simmons looking to return kicks and the true freshman Mark arriving as a true punt return specialist.

Go 'Cats!!!

e-mail: j-hodges@alumni.northwestern.edu

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jhodges is the primary content provider of HailToPurple.com.  His commentary and game analyses appear regularly during the season and occasionally in the offseason.