Commentary: Northwestern's 2011 Special Teams
by Jonathan Hodges

Finally, time for the "third phase" of football, special teams. Northwestern has had a long, rather infuriating experience with various parts of special teams under Coach Fitzgerald, particularly kicking and returns. But, thankfully, NU saw marked improvement in 2010 with the addition of Venric Mark as a game-changing return man and Brandon Williams as a reliable punter. They both return this year and will hopefully continue the positive trend in those areas. The big question heading into this season, though, is who the placekicker will be, and after the release of the first Northwestern depth chart of the 2011 season on August 26, it turns out that that man will be Jeff Budzien. The portions below reflect this new information.


For the first time in years, Northwestern will have a legitimate competition for placekicker going into the season. The contenders are walk-on junior Steve Flaherty and sophomore Jeff Budzien; each have booted on extra point in their only collegiate placekicking experience (Flaherty in 2009 and Budzien last season). Reports out of preseason camp have them in a dead-heat as both have apparently been kicking the ball very well, which seems like a good sign going into the year.

Unfortunately, it is extremely difficult to predict what the kicking situation will look like given that neither have any high-pressure collegiate game experience. And, as Fitz duly noted this offseason, one can tell much more about a kicker after a miss than anything else. Many NU fans seemingly loved to hate the 'Cats' previous kicker, Stefan Demos, who had a respectable 70.8% career FG success rate, and showed good range on multiple occasions (with a career long of 49 yards); Demos also kicked clutch game-winning field goals in multiple games (Eastern Michigan and Indiana in 2009; Minnesota in 2010). While it would certainly be great to have a kicker who can hit at an even higher rate (say, 80%, which his predecessor Amado Villarreal did in the 2008 season), NU will be fortunate to have a kicker who can replicate Demos' rate.

This race will be quite interesting as Budzien was a nationally ranked recruit who received a scholarship right away, while Flaherty is a local product who decided to walk on in order to try and earn a spot. Not only that, but whoever wins the starting spot will have to keep their game up as the other will be waiting on the sideline for his chance; this dynamic is something that the Wildcats have been missing for a long while. In fact, this continued competition through the year may very well increase the quality of kicking as a competent backup is waiting just around the corner. Another interesting wrinkle will be their respective ranges, something that likely won't be discovered until weeks into the season when the starter has had an opportunity to try a long (40+ yard) FG.

UPDATE: In the 'Cats' first two-deep of the season, Budzien was listed as the starting placekicker, which is not a huge surprise given his pedigree detailed above. But, much of what was said still applies as any misstep (or, in this case, mis-kick) will relight the competition with Flaherty, who will be keeping his legs warm on kickoff duty.

The fact is that the kicking game is vital for NU's success considering the large number of close games in which the 'Cats are inevitably involved (27 games under Fitz decided by seven or fewer points, or 43% of his games coached), and hopefully this competition will help push the NU kicking game to a higher level.


In 2009, the aforementioned Demos handled all kicking duties: kickoffs, placekicking, and punts, for virtually the entire season. This move was certainly questioned early, and then often due to his punting (which Demos himself mentioned) along with inconsistencies in his field goal kicking. After the season concluded, it came out that he had injury issues during the season and fatigue was certainly a factor. This season, it's clear that Fitz wants to avoid a repeat at all costs, as Flaherty was named the man on kickoffs, which divides kicking responsibilities between three players.

Flaherty has two career kickoffs: one that went to the three yard line and one that went for a touchback. Last year, Demos kicked the ball to, on average, the 5.7 yard line and had a 17% touchback rate, which are decent enough numbers, especially considering the 'Cats ranked a solid 23rd nationally in kickoff return defense (allowing just a hair over 20 yards per return). That put opponents around their own 26 yard line as an average starting position: again, pretty good considering that the NCAA still kicks off from the 30 yard line. (Side note: in 2006 the NCAA backed kickoffs up to the 30 from the 35 to match the NFL and decrease the length of games by reducing touchbacks. This season, the NFL moved kickoffs up to the 35 in a bid to increase touchbacks and prevent injuries on returns. It is unknown if the NCAA will follow the NFL's lead in future seasons.)

Having an independent kickoff specialist should allow Flaherty to focus on booming kicks and and not spend as much time keeping his field goal form in order. This of course provides an opportunity to either avoid returns by generating a higher touchback rate (certainly possible: Oklahoma State had a whopping 55 last season) or by pinning teams deep, particularly if the coverage team continues to play at a high level.

Speaking of the coverage team, as mentioned last year, the benefit of having a deep team with quick young players is really seen on special teams where they can really put that speed to good use. Expect to see a lot of young guys as Fitz has committed to saving his regular starters for offense and defense; that increase in young talent should be evident on special teams, particularly kickoff coverage. Expect NU to remain in the top quartile nationally in kick return defense with this strategy combined with a dedicated kickoff specialist.


Punting is an area where the Wildcats definitely improved in 2010 with the addition of then-redshirt freshman Brandon Williams as the dedicated punter. He averaged 40 yards per punt last year, a 5 yard improvement over Demos in 2009. And to add to that, net punting was up over 6 yards: from 31.6 to 38.0 yards per punt thanks to the nation's third ranked punt return defense (Northwestern allowed just 3.3 yards per return in 2010, with a lot due to the fact that they returned the ball just 21% of the time).

What's really promising in 2011 is that Williams will hopefully become more consistent; a few shanks really kept his average last year down, and with a full year under his belt as a starter he has surely worked to improve for his sophomore campaign. Also, that aforementioned speed gives NU the chance to get gunners and other coverage down the field quickly in order to continue an excellent trend.

There isn't much to say here except to continue the good work, and hopefully by ironing out some of the wrinkles this unit can be even better in 2011.

Kickoff Returns

The addition of speedster Venric Mark was huge last season, as he helped propel NU's kick return game from 89th nationally in 2009 to 42nd nationally in 2010: and that was without being the primary kick returner until midway through the season. Mark is a very dangerous weapon and he will have the opportunity to improve on his 26.1 yards per return average (his most electrifying return, a 94 yarder for a TD, came in the final week of the regular season at Wisconsin: one of the few bright spots for the 'Cats in that game).

This year, he'll be flanked by redshirt freshman Ibraheim Campbell, another speedster who played both ways in high school and will compliment his defensive back duties at NU by helping on kick returns. His potential is also high and his experience as a running back should help in blocking if the coaching staff decides to put both he and Mark deep.

The ability to have a true return threat adds a very nice dimension to the Wildcats' game, and a full season with two high-octane players returning kicks should yield dividends for the NU offense in the form of better starting field position (or, points without even having to run an offensive play).

Punt Returns

Finally, punt returns, something Fitz and his fellow staff seemingly just couldn't figure out through his first four seasons on the job:

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

Then, Venric Mark came along:

2010: 9.3 yards per punt return (45th nationally), 0 touchdowns, 58 yard long
(Mark averaged 12.9 yards per return, which would have ranked him 16th nationally if he had 7 more returns to qualify for ranking)

He'll be back returning punts again as he becomes NU's return specialist (and he's only a true sophomore); if he continues at this pace he has a chance to set some NU records (he's already tied for second in NU kickoff return average and would be in second for punt return average if he had enough returns). Again, his ability gives NU a huge boost in starting field position and the threat is always there for him to take it all the way. Credit should be given to the NU coaching staff for finding him and having the guts to put him on the field as a true freshman; it's already paid off.


Northwestern saw a huge boost in special teams play in 2010 with punt and kickoff teams that ranked near the top nationally. Venric Mark gave the 'Cats a huge return threat on both kicks and punts, and he'll be back at it again in 2011. And NU will look to nail down its next placekicker with Budzien getting the first shot and Flaherty waiting in the wings just in case. Overall, the 'Cats look to be in excellent shape from a special teams standpoint; a huge turnaround from one year ago when questions abounded and many were calling for Fitz to relinquish the self-imposed title of Special Teams Coach. Now, NU has a chance to take it a step further and use the "third phase" to provide a boost to their win total.

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.