First, an anecdote. I played football in high school (I was pretty good) and one year of college at the Division III level (I was beyond terrible - I was a scout team offensive tackle weighing all of about 210 pounds with extremely limited talent; there was a D-III All American outside linebacker/defensive end on the team who was about my weight and was a goddamned cyborg. He wore a face shield that was basically a mirror - whenever he lined up opposite me, I could see the fear in my own eyes. I have PTSD over it to this day). In high school, our special teams guys weren't specialists; they were position players who showed some ability to kick the ball. In college, though, kicking and punting was all these guys did. They'd show up to practice about midway through, joke around on the sidelines while I was pulverized into a red mist by dudes that were BIGGERSTRONGERFASTER than me, kick the ball a little during special teams drills, then head off to the showers. It's a good gig if you can get it. I'll go to the grave cursing my parents for not sending me to punting camp when I was eight years old.
As for the Gophers, I have good news and bad news. First the good.
Last year was a breakthrough, and Mortell was the catalyst. The Gophers added a full five yards to the gross punting average and improved three yards in net punting over the previous season, good enough for 8th in the conference. In terms of gross punting, Mortell was tied for second in the conference; not too shabby for a red-shirt sophomore in his first live game experience.
Also, he's a Twitter god.
One thing to keep an eye on this year is punt defense. As indicated above, the gross punt average improved significantly more than the net punt average, suggesting a breakdown in coverage. In fact, the Gophers gave up an average of 4.4 yards per return, worst in the conference by 1.5 yards. He was, quite literally, out kicking his coverage. The Gophers need to to take better advantage of Mortell's strong gross average by limiting opponent returns. How's that for analysis?
After Mortell, I genuinely have no idea. In the event he goes down, senior Christian Eldred (AUSSIE AUSSIE AUSSIE) is his likely backup. The principal punter in the 2012 season, he averaged 38.1 gross yards per punt. I don't have a lot of interest in going back to that. Also on the roster is true freshman Logan McElfresh. Fortunately, punters rarely get hurt, so Mortell will be our homeboy all season, right?
And now the bad news.
Huzzah! We return approximately zero kicking attempts from last year. Chris Hawthorne graduated and took with him some fairly reliable spot kicking statistics from the 2013 season. Hawthorne converted 14 of 18 field goal attempts last year and 36 of 39 extra points. While hardly All American, those are acceptable stats given the propensity for college kickers to go all #CollegeKickers on us.
So, what do we have going into this year? Ryan Santoso, who seems to have the inside track for the starting position, is a kicker in an offensive tackle's body. At 6'6" and 240lbs (see, his parents were smart and sent their giant child to kicker's camp while I was left being ground to dust; I wish you loved me more, Mom and Dad) he has a massive leg and will be a touch back machine on kickoffs. The biggest question is his accuracy. Reports out of fall camp suggest he's equally likely to make a 50-yard field goal and a 35-yard field goal; it'll never be short, but may have some, uh, directional challenges. While that certainly has some upside, I like my kickers to be a little more consistent from short yardage. Enter Andrew Harte, also a red-shirt freshman. He doesn't quite have the Janikowski Hammer of Santoso, but seems to be a mite more accurate from within 35 yards.
Again, this is all based on fairly observations from the media and public practices, so take it for what it's worth. I suspect we'll see some kicker bukkake action, where Santoso and Harte share the duties, with the former handling kickoffs and field goals over 42 yards and the latter taking extra points and everything inside the opponent's 25 yard line.
All of that said, having no experienced kicker on the team is concerning. The Gophers were a fairly efficient team in the red zone last year, scoring on 33 of 37 (89%) red zone trips, good for 19th in the country. Of those, 25 were touchdowns (67.5%) and the remaining eight were field goals (21.62%). If they can continue the high TD rate in the red zone, it will take substantial pressure off of the kicker.
We're going to do something a little different here and use our favorite Gopher player by position category and grade the current group against them. It might not make any sense, but we run our own blog so we can go Peak Idiot if we want to.
Rhys Lloyd - B+
I'm going full cheat mode and rolling with a dude who was both the placekicker and punter for the Gophers. As an expat Briton, he'd be my favorite former specialist anyway; but choosing him also allows me to use this:
Rhys was consistent, if not spectacular, at both duties and earns a solid B+ from me. Yes there may be some grade inflation in play from beating the Badgers. It is my noble right.
I'm giving the current squad of specialists a B-. Mortell has the potential to be All B1G this year, but there is too much uncertainty around the placekicker to go much higher than that. If we're not as consistent in the red zone as we were last season, the outcome of many games may come down to a red-shirt freshman. I'll be drinking with the rest of you to numb that pain.
(Frothy word count: 1,183; total 100k challenge word count: 4,954)
Nothing gets me more revved up than blogging about kickers and punters. Also, what about the rest of the specials Swanzilla? ARE THEY NOTHING TO YOU?
Here are my favorite kicker and punter past and their grades:
Dan Nystrom, PK 99-02 Grade: A
Preston Gruening, P 00-02 Grade: B
This dynamic duo played together for most of their careers and have some pretty awesome highlights to show for it.
Nystrom once made 5 field goals in a game. Since 2000 he is 11th amongst B1G kickers in field goals made. What's that you say? Nystrom played in 1999 as well? Well, I'm too lazy to look back that extra year and sports-reference refuses to let me query that far back; but let's just assume it puts him first. According to the internet, today he's kicking ass at Colonial Life
Preston Gruening made Playboy's All-America team and if you search the web you will find a hilarious photo of Preston and teammates in some weird Mad Max type costumes. Preston is also my facebook friend thanks to my prior Where Are They Now According to Google piece on him a few years back. He's somewhere in Wisconsin living the dream I think. I have no word on whether he gets into townie bar fights due to his Gopher stardom or not.
Gopher Specials for 2014 Grade: B
Having a brand new kicker can be a scary scary thing and Hawthorne was pretty respectable. I was worried the name SANTOSO might mean "inconsistent" in Spanish or whatever so I went to google once again and was rewarded with the following (I bolded the important stuff):
What Does Name "Santoso" MeanYou are spiritually intense and can sting or charm. Your name brings love and new starts into life and attracts money. In business, you are the creator and promoter of original ideas and usually enjoy considerable financial success. You are bold, independent, inquisitive and interested in research. You know what you want and why you want it. Dependable, very down-to-earth and well grounded, you are always looking for meaningful work, a career where you can take pride in your work and do the best job you are capable of. Your prime desire is to build protected and secure environment at home and at work. You can be very persuasive in achieving GOALS and gaining objectives. You can be very detailed and well-organized and possess great organizational skills. At times you may appear too stubborn and overly critical to others, but your practical approach to life and productivity makes you one of the most beneficent members of community.
Swan covered Mortell already...guy is nails. Please don't die, buddy.
If you're just looking at K and P, I tend to agree with the Swan B- grade, but I'm kicking it up a notch due to the return game and Marcus Motherflippin' Jones! He averaged 24.9 on kick returns and had a 99 yard TD against UNLV. He also housed a punt for a TD against NMSU. Looks like Berkeley Edwards, KJ Maye and Antonio "Thompson" Johnson may get some run here too.