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.