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Football: Flynn Nagel revives dormant Northwestern punt return unit

Football: Flynn Nagel revives dormant Northwestern punt return unit
(Leeks Lim/The Daily Northwestern)

Northwestern’s kick return unit electrified fans in 2015, with then-sophomore Solomon Vault taking two kicks to the house in two especially high-leverage moments.

But the Wildcats punt return unit failed to offer any kind of balance. The combination of then-freshman Flynn Nagel and then-senior Miles Shuler ran back just 13 punts all year, ranking 10th out of 14 teams in the Big Ten. All too often NU’s punt returners wouldn’t even field the ball, letting it bounce for a few extra yards instead calling for a fair catch.

Nagel changed that Saturday against Duke by running back five punts, the most in a game for the Cats over at least the past nine seasons. He didn’t bust a long one, but Nagel’s returns were consistently positive. That he was trying to return them at all was a welcome sight to many fans.

“Our guys always have a green light,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “I can’t jump in their heads and say, ‘catch it and run.’ … But we tell the guys to be aggressive, we tell them to err on the side of being aggressive and catching them.”

Nagel has clearly taken that to heart, and his assertiveness in fielding punts Saturday brought back memories of NU’s best punt returner in recent memory: Venric Mark.

A dynamic running back in his own right, Mark truly shined when he dropped back deep to field a punt. After his junior season in 2012, Mark received first-team All-America honors as a return specialist thanks to the two punts he returned for scores that year.

When Mark got ready to field a punt, everybody in the stadium held their breath in anticipation. Nagel has yet to bust a long return and doesn’t inspire the same kind of fear, but that he tries at least offers some hope.

“This week, I think we just had a lot of guys doing a good job blocking their guy, so it gave me a little bit of time back there,” Nagel said of his performance. “As long as everybody keeps doing their job I’m going to try to keep being aggressive.”

That aggressiveness, Fitzgerald said, is key to being a “dude” — somebody like Mark who can make defenders miss and turn nothing into something on a punt return. Nagel obviously isn’t at that level yet, but Fitzgerald seems encouraged by the early returns.

“He was pretty fearless on Saturday,” Fitzgerald said. “It was pretty cool.”

Depth Chart Breakdown: Week 1

Depth Chart Breakdown: Week 1
(Daily file photo by Sophie Mann)

Sophomore Clayton Thorson is still the quarterback, junior running back Justin Jackson will still be taking handoffs from him and junior linebacker Anthony Walker will still be terrorizing opposing offenses. To the casual observer, not much has changed about Northwestern football from last year.

But the Wildcats’ release Monday of their depth chart for their Week 1 matchup against Western Michigan nonetheless held some surprises, clarifying starters at several key positions and crystallizing the 22 players who will lead NU in its attempt to repeat a 10-win season.

Wide receiver play was a major point for the Cats’ offense in 2015, and the position group received a complete overhaul over the offseason. Then-seniors Miles Shuler, Cameron Dickerson and Christian Jones all occupied the starting slots a year ago; taking the reins this year will be senior Austin Carr, junior Solomon Vault and sophomore Flynn Nagel.

Carr, a former walk-on, put on a breakout performance last season and enters the year as NU’s leading returning receiver. Nagel likewise cracked the lineup a year ago and was one of a handful of true freshman to see playing time. He got off to a promising start before injury limited him to just five games.

Rounding out the group is Vault, a converted running back. The junior had an offseason to practice at his new position and has already flashed some potential as a pass-catcher. His addition will help flip a position of weakness into an area of strength for the Cats.

The effort to improve the passing attack will also be aided by redshirt freshman Cameron Green, who moved from receiver to superback over the offseason and is now slotted as the backup behind junior Garrett Dickerson. The 6-foot-3 target should be a good balance to NU’s otherwise short receiving corps.

The defensive line also has a fresh look. With former defensive ends Dean Lowry and Deonte Gibson off to the NFL, former reserves senior Ifeadi Odenigbo and junior Xavier Washington will be stepping in to fill the void.

Elsewhere on the defense, former four-star recruit Parrker Westphal made it on to the depth chart for the first time in his career, slotting into a reserve safety role. Westphal battled through injuries his first two years at NU, so seeing him ready to take the field is a welcome sight. His presence adds needed depth to the secondary in the wake of a season-ending injury to junior cornerback Keith Watkins II.

And somewhat surprisingly, senior Jaylen Prater beat out sophomore Nate Hall for the starting job at linebacker. Hall impressed toward the end of last year, but it looks like Prater’s greater experience won out.

2016 Football Preview: Special Teams

2016 Football Preview: Special Teams
(Daily file photo by Jacob Swan)

During a 2015 season defined by close wins, Northwestern’s performance often came down to the play of the special teams units.

The Wildcats’ conservative ground-and-pound offense led to an abundance of three things: punts, field goals and a desperate need to squeeze points out of the return game. Despite a 10-3 record last year, NU has plenty of room to improve on all three fronts coming into this season.

The biggest bright spot, of course, was the play of then-sophomore running back Solomon Vault. The speedster returned two kickoffs for touchdowns in 2015, and saved each for a big moment.

The first came against Duke, when Vault ran back the opening kick of the second half to flip a 7-3 deficit into a 9-7 lead. The Cats didn’t trail for the remainder of the game. The second came against Penn State, when NU needed every point it could get after starting quarterback Clayton Thorson left the game with an injury. The Cats went on to win on a last second field goal.

Vault, now a wide receiver, will still be the guy on kickoff returns, and there’s every reason to believe he can muster a repeat performance. Fans should hope that he does, because the rest of the special teams lineup doesn’t inspire much confidence.

The speedy Vault will not be returning punts, leaving a position of glaring need wide-open heading into NU’s opening week contest against Western Michigan. Then-senior receiver Miles Shuler fulfilled the role for much of last season, but chose to run back only 11 punts in 12 games.

Sophomore receiver Flynn Nagel is the presumptive favorite to win the job, having returned two punts in 2015 before suffering an injury. Diminutive sophomore wideout Jelani Roberts would also be a good option. As long as the Cats put somebody back deep who actually tries to catch the ball, they should see improvement.

In the kicking game, senior kicker Jack Mitchell and junior punter Hunter Niswander both return to their respective roles this season. Though Mitchell earned a reputation for being clutch after his game-winning boot against Penn State, his overall performance ranked among the worst in the Big Ten.

He attempted 27 kicks, tied for second in the conference, but finished tied for ninth among 12 qualifying kickers with a 67 percent success rate. Even more frustratingly, he missed three of his 28 point-after attempts.

The dismal offense that may have hindered Mitchell should have helped Niswander, who instead turned in the worst punting performance in the Big Ten. Niswander led the conference with 85 punts — 11 more than any other punter — and finished dead last among qualifying players with an average of 38 yards per punt.

NU will still be a team reliant on a steady run game and a dominant defense, meaning Niswander will have to be better.

At the very least he’ll have the consistency of senior long snapper Chris Fitzpatrick in front of him. Fitzpatrick, entering his third season as the starter, is remarkably unremarkable – a perfect quality for a long snapper.