Yeah, I know we haven't gotten to the whole defensive side of the ball yet...or coaches yet...or, generally speaking, some really important positions that we're going to argue about for a long, long time. But as I'm typing this up and getting it ready for publishing, I can't help but hear this in the background:
PUNTERS! This was my position in high school. I punted rugby style, steps to the right, let it fly...or steps to the left if I had the ball snapped over my head (I'm 6'3"...stupid snapper) and turned the wrong way when I picked it up. So it's, again, near and dear to my heart. How near and dear? I practiced being Rhys Lloyd as a kid. And I'm not kidding. His double-fake punt game against Toledo at the Metrodome in 2004...I was there. I was awestruck. Miss you, Rhys.
1. Mike Sadler - Michigan State
HNNNNGH. This is stupid. I'm giving you the trite "No punter means more to his team hurr durr" explanation. Let's get something out of the way: Statistically, Mike Sadler is not the best punter in the B1G. I'll say it again for you Sparty fans:
Statistically, Mike Sadler is not the best punter in the B1G.
So we're clear, right? Sadler is, however, a key cog in the all-world, all-everything, so-elite-it-hurts defense of Michigan State, and received accolades in 2013 accordingly. He is a smart, valued, humorous (check out his Twitter) young man who outrushed Michigan that one game (so please, Sparty fans, we get it, and I've handled it for you). He is a stellar punter who should contend for the Ray Guy Award in 2014.
2. Cameron Johnston - Ohio State
Johnston, statistically, is the best punter, far and away, in the B1G. He is the top line on the table above (Sadler is the second). The Aussie punter can boom it with the best of them, killed an obscene number and percentage of kicks inside the 20, and has a disturbingly high fair catch rate (albeit likely helped by the athletic OSU coverage team). Had the Buckeyes needed to punt more, it would have been interesting to see if Johnston's numbers were sustainable. He winds up in second ONLY because of Sadler's value to the Spartans compared to his to the Buckeyes.
3. Peter Mortell - Minnesota
Another tough choice. Third in the table above, Mortell had the consistently biggest leg in 2013, with a league-high 25% of punts reaching 50+ yards and the second-highest ypp, at 43.3. Only putting 34% inside the 20, he nonetheless had a few memorable ones stopped on the 6-inch line at TCF Bank Stadium against Penn State and bailed the Gophers out of a few tough spots. The Coaches' All-B1G Honorable Mention punter (behind Sadler and the departed best-punter-in-the-B1G Cody Webster) rounds out a talented triad of punters, any of whom has a strong case to be #1 on this list.
4. Sam Foltz - Nebraska
Called upon 71 times in 2013, Foltz hit an impressive 41.6 ypp, pinning opponents inside the 20 a strong 31% of times and having a third-best 21% rate of 50+ punts. I recall catching him on a bad day in Lincoln, in which he hit at least one out of the end zone, shanked another, and had some unimpressive kicks, followed by a few monsters that pinned Northwestern deep. Nonetheless, he's been a solid, if not elite, punter in the Big Ten who generally does what Nebraska asks of him.
5. Michigan punters - Matt Wile and/or Will Hagerup
This one's my hedging my bets, because even before Hagerup's suspension for the 2013 season, Michigan used both of them in 2012 to great effect: Hagerup averaged 45.0 per punt and hit a whopping 39% of 50+, and Wile pooch-kicked from shorter ranges, landing 31% inside the 20 in 2012 and a decreased (after handling full-time duties) 25% in 2013 while still averaging 40.6 ypp. With Wile the front-runner for kicking duties, Hagerup might see an increased role (or might drug himself out of football--who knows). They nonetheless represent an impressive duo in the B1G.
Connor Kornbrath - Iowa
Kornbrath misses out on the list almost solely due to his leg strength. With a YPP under 40, a long in 2013 of just 55 yards, and an underwhelming 16% rate of 50+ punts, he's a solid, reliable punter, but nothing we're writing home about in the Big Ten, Land of the Punter. He did, however, pin opponents inside the 20 a whopping 45% of the time, on 23 of his 51 punts, and while I'm tempted to make a Kirk Ferentz joke, I will hold off. The point is, Kornbrath is a solid, workmanlike punter who just misses out on this list.
Justin DuVernois - Illinois
GASP! Bill Cubit's offense occasionally needs to punt, and this is the guy who does it. Only punting 51 times in 2013, DuVernois put up solid (if unspectacular) rates of 25% inside the 20, 20% of 50+, and 41.1 ypp. Interesting to note is that he had by far the lowest fair catch rate in the Big Ten, only having 5 fair caught for a 10% rate, 9% lower than Mortell, his nearest competition. Again, another workman who could easily be hovering around 5 or down around 8 in punting stats.