When you think of the elite of the elite college football teams like Alabama and Clemson people may think they dominate because they put a lot of guys in the NFL. Yes, that is a huge part of why they are successful but it is more than just that. A huge reason why those teams are always good is, they are just as good on specials teams as they are on offense and defense. Something you cannot say about Wisconsin the past couple of years. Special teams aren’t sexy and don’t grab any of the headlines or highlights but it’s just as important as offense and defense. As much as I love Paul Chryst but one part of his game that has been struggling is the special team’s department. The unit hit rock bottom in 2018 when it finished 129th in the nation (rankings Phil Steele). Just completely unacceptable for a school like Wisconsin to finish that low in any ranking. If the Badgers want to end up back in Indy this unit needs to improve. Let us dive into the numbers to see how poor it has been.
Punting Prowess Emerges
2019 was a year to forget punting the ball for the Badgers, as they finished 11th with just 39.6 yards per punt. Not to mention Anthony Lotti dropping a punt in the Big Ten Championship and in the Rose Bowl that both lead to touchdowns the other way. There were some question marks again heading into the 2020 season about the punting game as both Anthony Lotti and Conner Allen graduated. Incomes Andy Vujnovich who the year before was playing at the University of Dubuque a division three school in Iowa. I think it’s fair to say Vujnovich had an up and down year for the most part. He had good games like against Illinois where he had four punts that averaged 46 yards per punt. Then he had games against Wake Forest where he had four punts averaging just 33.5 yards per punt. Overall he finished the season averaging 41.2 yards per punt, finishing 10th in the Big Ten one slot higher than 2019. Consistency is the key for Vujnovich he cannot have games where he averages less than 35 yards per punt if he wants the season to be a success. Vujnovich definitely has the size (6’3 230) to be of one the best punters in the Big Ten the one thing I worry about him is punting in front of crowds. In 2020 there were no fans and Vujnovich played in division three before this where crowds are maybe 5,000 people. Punting in front of 80,000 screaming fans is a whole different monster. If Vujnovich can be more consistent and the big crowds do not get in his head he can have a big year and get in the top of the Big Ten in punting which will only help their defense.
How to Kick a Football
Much like the punting game in 2019, the kicking department was not much better. UW finished 12th (out of 14) in field goal percentage. Colin Larsh was the main kicker that year going 12-18 in his first year as the full-time field goal kicker. If you look on paper it would seem like Larsh had a better 2020 going 5-7 on the year, but the longest kick he made was just 31 yards. Distance is the main issue for Larsh as he is just 2-7 in his career when the field goal is 40 yards or longer. It really hurts your team when you can only trust your kicker from 35 yards or shorter. It appears Larsh is going to be the main again in 2021. Larsh and sophomore kicker Jack Van Dyke were battling in camp for the starting job but Van Dyke injured his kicking leg and that has pretty much given the job to Larsh. You never want to root against a Badger but it is hard to say you can really trust Larsh trotting out of the field for any kick then is longer than 35 yards. I hope I am wrong and have to eat my words at the end of the year but as of right now the kicking game again is a huge question mark.
Long Snappers are People, Too
If you were to ask a Badger fan “hey what do you think of Adam Bay’s career at Madison?” A lot of fans may not know who you are talking about. As a long snapper that is exactly what you want. You only hear about a long snapper when he is snapping the ball over someone’s head. Adam Bay started every game the past four years and had zero bad snaps, a perfect career for a long snapper. Bay is graduated and moved on, so now it is Peter Bowden’s time to take over the long-snapping duties. Just something to watch as it has been a while since the Badgers had a new long snapper. His backup Duncan Mckinley torn his ACL in the spring and will miss all of the 2021 season. If something were to happen to Bowden the Badgers would have to turn to true freshman long snapper Zach Zei. I am not snapping Zei could not get the job done if he was thrown into the fire, but having to put your third-string-long snapper on the field is not ideal for any team.
2021 is a big year for the special team’s room. They simply cannot have another year where they finish in the bottom four of the Big Ten this year. If they do it may be time to make some changes starting with Chirs Haering who is the special team’s coach. This will be his seventh year in Madison but his unit has been at the bottom of the league for too long. You do not want to see someone lose their job but improvements need to be made ASAP. Lastly, it is time for the coaching staff to dish out a scholarship for either kicker or punter or both. The route of giving a preferred walk-on to an in-state kid is just not working. Would the coaching staff rather have a great kicker than can rely on? Or an eight corner in the room. Having this unit back towards the top of the Big Ten will result in the Badgers finishing on top of the Big Ten West again.
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