Unit Rankings: Nebraska highlights Big Ten West special teams

Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

Unit Rankings: Nebraska highlights Big Ten West special teams

A look at the special teams units in the Big Ten West has to begin in Lincoln, Nebraska, where the Cornhuskers boast a boffo punter (Sam Foltz), a deadly return man (De’Mornay Pierson-El) and an emerging kicker (Drew Brown).

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1. Nebraska. This group is very good. Sam Foltz averaged 42.2 yards per punt last year; he’ll be one of the Big Ten’s best this fall. Drew Brown connected on 14-of-21 field goals en route to establishing a Nebraska mark for points by a freshman last year with 101. That said, he needs to hone his distance after hitting only 2-of-7 from 40 yards or longer. De’Mornay Pierson-El is an electric return man, leading the Big Ten with a 17.5 average on punt returns with three touchdowns in 2014.

2. Minnesota. The Gophers have the reigning Big Ten Punter of the Year in Peter Mortell, who averaged 45.1 yards per boot in 2014. Ryan Santoso was a star freshman kicker. He has a monster leg that produced a 52-yard field goal and 38 touchbacks. Jalen Myrick lights up the return game. He ranked No. 2 in the Big Ten in kickoff returns last year, averaging 28.2 yards with a touchdown. Craig James has moves as a punt return man.

3. Purdue. The Boilermakers have veterans at kicker in Paul Griggs and punter Thomas Meadows. Griggs hit 16-of-20 field-goal attempts last year; Meadows averaged 39.8 yards on punts with 15 boots inside the 20-yard line. Raheem Mostert will be missed on returns, but Frankie Williams and Danny Anthrop can make plays. Williams averaged 17.1 yards on punt returns in 2014. D.J. Knox also is in the mix.

4. Wisconsin. The Badgers have a weapon at kicker in Brazilian Rafael Gaglianone. He connected on 19-of-22 field-goal attempts in 2014 as a freshman. The big fella also had two 50-yarders. The punting has a ways to go, as Drew Meyer was off his game last season. The return game will miss Kenzel Doe, a standout on punt and kickoff returns last year.

5. Iowa. Dillon Kidd is the front-runner to win the punting job. Stay tuned. Connor Kornbrath is still in the mix. Marshall Koehn is back to kick after hitting 12-of-16 field-goal attempts last year. He has a powerful leg that resulted in 43 touchbacks and a long field goal of 52 yards. In fact, Koehn’s strong leg could help him win the punting job. Jonathan Parker was No. 8 in the Big Ten in kickoff returns last year (22.1 ypr).

6. Northwestern. Steady kicker Jack Mitchell is back. He is good from short range but needs better distance after hitting just 3-of-6 from 40 yards or longer in 2014. He missed just one field goal from inside 40. Miles Shuler could be a difference-maker as a punt return man. Hunter Niswander is the leader to win the punting job. He punted just five times last season, so he has a lot to prove.

7. Illinois. First, the good news—V’Angelo Bentley is a threat on returns. In fact, he’s the only player in school history to run back a kickoff and punt for a TD in the same season. Taylor Zalewski hasn’t been steady as a kicker and could lose his job to David Reisner. Standout punter Justin Duvernois is gone. Too bad, as he could flip the field. Ryan Frain and Ryan Tucker are in the equation to assume punting chores.

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About Tom Dienhart BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart is a veteran sports journalist who covers Big Ten football and men’s basketball for BTN.com and BTN TV. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, read all of his work at btn.com/tomdienhart, and subscribe to his posts via RSS. Also, send questions to his weekly mailbag using the form below and read all of his previous answers in his reader mailbag section.

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