Commentary: End of Season Report Card: Special Teams
by Jonathan Hodges

Although NU's special teams had their deficiencies in 2010, they did have some bright spots and as an overall unit seemingly helped NU's cause more than they hurt it.  It also included the biggest in-season turnaround that the Wildcats had this year, read more on that below.  And a lot of focus will rightly go on much-derided NU K Stefan Demos, an outgoing senior, who despite his troubles helped NU win at least a couple of games this season and went out by hitting his last 4 FGs and ended the year by hitting a hair under 70% of his field goal attempts.

Northwestern also continued its strong play on punt and kick coverage as will also be documented later, essentially preventing opponents from getting a boost off of a return all year long, which certainly helped NU's cause.  That really is key to keeping the game even or tilting it in one's favor if the team can get something going in their own return game, which the Wildcats did indeed do during the second half of the season.

Place Kicking: C
   Midseason Grade: C+

Some Northwestern fans' favorite activity is being a downer, and their favorite target over the past two or three seasons has been K Stefan Demos.  First, it was his punts over his first two years where he often had to resort to the rugby-style kick which never seemed to net that many yards for the Wildcats.  It was hard to put too much blame on him because he was brought in to be a placekicker and took over punting duties at the request of the coaches because they didn't have anyone else that they trusted to do the job.  This year there was much focus on his FG misses at clutch moments: like the miss that would have won last season's Outback Bowl or the multiple misses in the fourth quarter against Purdue this year that would have tied Purdue.  It did come out at the end of this season just before the bowl game that Demos had been playing with a significant leg injury for all of this season; not an excuse, but definitely something for fans to consider.

This season, he ended up hitting 69.6% of his FG tries, with 5 of his 7 misses coming from outside of 40 yards.  He did end up hitting his final 4 FGs as a Wildcat and had a game winner at Minnesota and his 2 FG makes at Indiana also helped propel the 'Cats to victory.  For his career, he hit 70.8% of his FG tries and 91.9% of extra points.  It is worth noting that a few of those, including 4 FGs, were blocked so if he would have had better protection at times those numbers may have been higher.  And those in themselves are not horrible numbers, it was just tough because some of those FGs would have given NU victories or the chance of victories.  For this season as a unit, placekicking is worthy of a middle-of-the-road grade.

Returns: B
   Midseason Grade: D

At midseason, NU ranked 103rd nationally in punt returns, with Hunter Bates being the primary guy, and on kickoff returns Stephen Simmons led the way to a 65th ranked return unit.  Then came what was the biggest turnaround of any Northwestern unit within this season as Fitz put true freshman Venric Mark back as the primary return man on both punts and kickoffs.  He went on to rank 30th nationally in kick returns (averaging 26.2 yards per return) and was also dangerous on punts, averaging 12.9 yards per return, significantly better than NU has had in any year during Fitz's tenure.

The return units ended the year ranked 41st (kickoff) and 44th (punt) nationally, really solid numbers especially considering the dismal numbers to start the year.  Mark is clearly a huge weapon for the Wildcats in the return game moving forward and NU is hoping to see some electric moments from him over the coming 3 years.  If he had been doing his thing for more of the season than he did the grade for this unit would have been even higher.

Punts, Kicks, and Coverage: A
   Midseason Grade: A

The coverage units continued their strong play into the second half of the season, ending the year 3rd in punt return defense and 23rd in kickoff return defense, basically shutting down every opponent's return game and giving the NU defense a better chance.  Redshirt freshman Brandon Williams, despite a few punts he would like back, had a very solid year that ended with NU being ranked a respectable 29th in net punting.  The Wildcats will be fortunate to have him for another 3 seasons as well.  And, finally, Demos did a good job of getting his kickoffs deep (with 12 touchbacks this year), especially considering Demos' injury during the year that affected his kicking ability.

These units have been strong under Fitz in all areas except for punting, which finally emerged this year with a dedicated punter who has been able to give NU a consistent effort.  If Northwestern can keep this going they will definitely put themselves in better positions going forward.

Overall: B
   Midseason Grade: C+

While special teams didn't necessarily put the Wildcats in a position to win more games this year, they certainly didn't prevent the 'Cats from winning any game except for the Purdue contest.  They showed significant improvement as the season progressed, particularly in the return game as Mark handled most return duties.  And the coverage units remained consistent while the punt game showed sustained improvement over last season.  It will be interesting to see if Jeff Budzien, who will be a redshirt sophomore next year, will be able to take over placekicking duties and be consistent doing so.  But the rest of the units should be in rather good shape and many will be excited to see what Mark will be able to do.

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.