Welcome. Slip on your smoking jacket, step into the Lloyd-Demos Punters’ Lounge, grab a cocktail, and find a seat. No, not that one. That one’s reserved for Sam Foltz.
Rest in peace, brother.
There's one senior who couldn't be here today, even though we know he's watching out for us.#ForeverTwoSeven pic.twitter.com/gKvwpSwazH— Nebraska Football (@HuskerFBNation) November 19, 2016
If you’re new here, you’ll quickly learn that among...some of us (code for ME), punting is a sacrosanct art bemoaned by many, appreciated by some, and mastered by few. We all know punting is winning, but there’s more to it than just a big leg.
And that’s why I’ve got an ax to grind this year.
Big Ten coaches, grab a knee. Let’s chat about fake punts.
This is how you execute a fake punt:
This is not how you execute a fake punt:
This is how you execute a fake punt:
This is not how you execute a fake punt:
Now, I hear your concerns. "But MNW, only one of those involved the fake actually working, so why don’t you like it?!"
I’ll tell you why.
We punters are derided. Mocked. Cast aside as being anything less than the finely-tuned, leg-booming athletes that we are. Unless you’re a Clemson d-lineman, find me another non-specialist with that flexibility and range of motion. Sure, we don’t throw the tightest spiral every time, and sure, we don’t run real fast, but coach.
Give the punter a chance. Let him run/throw the ball.
1. Blake Gillikin, Penn State
Our Penn State friend 87townie warned us in 2016 that Gillikin, a 5* punter as rated by Kohl’s Kicking, "will make an immediate improvement on PSU's punting unit."
The rising sophomore is the leading leg in returning punters, capitalizing on a vacuum left by Cameron Johnston and distinguishing himself by booming the ball all over the damn park in 2016. While that’s led to some touchbacks, Gillikin has impressive 50+ and FC% numbers to go with an outstanding inside-20 rate. He’s a bona-fide field-flipper.
2. Ryan Santoso, Minnesota
The converted kicker stepped up for the Gophers in 2016, helping a sometimes-anemic offense flip the field (in the tradition of Peter Mortell), registering strong numbers in both his inside-20 rate and tying Gillikin for the most punts of 50+ yards among returners in 2017. Only a slightly lower fair catch rate (which can be as much on coverage and opponent) and leg strength hold Santoso behind Gillikin.
We’ll see how a PJ Fleck offense changes Santoso’s usage and punting style, if at all. He’s my front-runner for Eddelman-Fields.
T-3. Joe Schopper, Purdue
Jake Hartbarger, Michigan State
Schopper’s down a little ways on the list in terms of yards per punt, but the true junior showed a knack for pinning opponents deep in 2016, with a second-best (among returning punters) 43% rate inside the 20.
I can’t distinguish the two, who had almost identical work-rates, inside-20 performances, and boomers. While Hartbarger avoids touchbacks, Schopper puts more inside the 20. While Schopper gets fewer fair catches, he’s also got more distance. It’s a tossup, though I’d put Hartbarger’s ceiling slightly higher.
5. Hunter Niswander, Northwestern
Yes, he’s got a bigger leg than either of the previous two, but my favorite in-stands whipping boy (after Mick McCall, naturally, and shut up, I like what I like) fell off big time over the course of 2016. After averaging at least 40 ypp in his first 6 games, he averaged under 40 ypp over his next 5 (including a positively abysmal showing at Minnesota) before stabilizing his average against Illinois and Pitt. The ‘Cats struggled to flip the field against Minnesota and Ohio State, and the punting game shoulders some of that responsibility.
Perhaps there’s a cold weather component to Niswander’s struggles—either way, consistency keeps him in the Top 5, but with some serious reservations.
6. Joseph Gedeon, Indiana
Gedeon was exceptional at pinning opponents inside the 20 while keeping the ball out of the end zone, but poor fair catch and 50+ rates keep him outside the Top 5.
A little more leg—which was a knock on him entering IU—might put the punter with the best Twitter handle on this list (he also claims to be a Ravenclaw, making him aight in my book) close to the top come next year.
7. Caleb Lightbourn, Nebraska
Lightbourn found himself in the most unenviable spot in 2016, having planned to redshirt behind the late Sam Foltz and then struggling in the process when called upon to replace Foltz.
There were highlights, like being named Big Ten Freshman of the Week after his performance against Oregon, but there was also a -2 yard punt, a 5 yard punt, and an improvised fake punt that failed to net a first down against Wyoming. Part of the learning curve, no doubt, and time in the weight room—along with a new ST coach—will help Lightbourn rise up the rankings in 2017. He’s shown potential to boom the ball, put an impressive percentage of his kicks inside the 20, and will undoubtably improve with age.
Oh, and he can do a Rubik’s Cube like it’s nobody’s business. So it looks like I'm the asshole.
8. Wade Lees, Maryland
I reached out to DJ Carver for comment on the fact that the 28 year-old freshman had a ridiculous 47% fair catch rate while only hitting one punt longer than 50 yards. He laughed. The Aussie Rules football player adjusted well during his first season state-side, given that he was called upon 72 times, and improved I20% and maybe, just maybe, a second kick over 50 yards will vault him up the rankings. Time will tell.
9. Anthony Lotti, wisconsin
Twitter: Can’t find one.
I swear this isn’t just my anti-badger vendetta. While Lotti did an excellent job pinning opponents inside the 20 (50%!) in 2016, there’s not much leg here, either in terms of distance or height.
You saw it at the worst times in games like the Big Ten Championship. Lotti punted 4 times for just 139 yards, pinning the Nittany Lions inside the 20 twice, but both of his second-half punts from badger territory failed to flip the field, traveling under 40 yards and allowing one return, resulting in a 32-yard net on that one.
These numbers are right in line with his season numbers--half inside the 20, 1-in-4 fair catches, and average in the mid-30s. Part of this is created by the offense’s ability to get into opponent territory, part is that Lotti is just a continuation of punting struggles in Madison.
10. Michael Cintron, Rutgers
Twitter: Can’t find one.
I feel bad putting a guy who set a school and Big Ten record with 95 (!!!!!!!) punts at the bottom, and the rutger offense rarely does much to put him in a position to succeed. (Niswander was 8th of my 8 ranked last year after leading the B1G in usage, for what it’s worth.)
Someone’s got to be last, though, and I saw neither the touch nor the leg from Cintron to put him over the top. Lotti’s ability to pit opponents gives him the slightest of nods. Perhaps being called on a little less in 2017 will allow Cintron to climb the list in his redshirt junior season.
Small Sample Size
Colten Rastetter, Iowa
The redshirt sophomore lost the job to transfer tumbler Ron Coluzzi in 2016, but barring more Iowa punting transfers, he should hold off walk-on Jackson Terry to earn the starting job for the Hawkeyes. He punted just once for 42 yards in 2016.
What I like most about Rastetter is that he’s a lefty—especially in college, that could become a real weapon for the Hawkeyes in the punting game if the spin and angle of the ball can help Iowa’s coverage team force a fumble or two. Think of the tent that’ll put in the Ol’ Pleated Khakis.
I generally don’t rank incoming punters, because you never know how well they’ll adjust to Big Ten play. Plus, I’m sure they’re all ranked #1 at something or were All-Conference/-District/-State in high school. Instead I’ve aggregated them here for your reading pleasure.
Drue Chrisman, Ohio State
Of course Ohio State comes up with the #1 punter in the Class of 2016. Meet Drue Chrisman! He replaces outgoing Eddelman-Fields Punter of the Year and Ray Guy Award finalist Cameron Johnston. I’m sure he’ll quickly be the best punter in the nation or something, because that’s just how Ohio State works.
Oh, and since he was a quarterback before needing Tommy John surgery in high school, I look forward to him dropping a back shoulder fade for about 30 yards on Northwestern after Urbz dials one up while pinned back at the OSU 24 yard line.
Brad Robbins, Michigan
Freshman Robbins, ranked #`1 in the Class of 2017, will compete with freshman walk-on Will Hart for the Michigan punting job. Don’t worry, guys. It’s like, a 50-50 chance you do something incredibly stupid that people will make a .gif out of and never let you live down.
GRADUATE TRANSFER ALERT
Ryan Anderson, Rutgers
RUTGERS GOT A GRADUATE TRANSFER PUNTER! From that On the Banks piece:
Anderson holds the NCAA Division 3 single season record averaging 46.2 yards per punt. Of his 47 punts, nine went for touchbacks, 18 of his punts went for 50 yards or more (long of 65 yards). Additionally, he pinned his opponents inside the twenty yard-line 15 times.
That’s...a mixed bag, to be sure. I want to see him in the bigs before I rank him, but damn, this guy’s a boomer. A little more control and the Scarlet Knights might have a real weapon on their hands. Welcome to the Big Ten, Ryan, where punting is winning!
By Default, I Guess?
Ryan Tucker, Illinois
Both David Reisner and Ryan Frain (who retweeted this article last year and sent me spiraling into a tizzy of excitement) have graduated, and...well, it doesn’t really look like anyone’s waiting in the wings in Illinois. Per Thumpasaurus, missing on Tucker Day (I’ll take your word for it, Thump) means that Illinois has zero punters on scholarship.
I expect Kirk to try and run up the score in retaliation next year.
They’ve offered the #1 punting recruit out of California, Ryan Stonehouse, but he’s got offers from a bunch of schools beyond Illinois, so we’ll see what happens.
UPDATE: Illinois lost out on Stonehouse to Colorado State.
That means the only punter on the Illinois roster is currently Ryan Tucker, a redshirt junior out of the Chicagoland area who has no actual things about punting on his Illini page.
Now that I’ve written this, I’m sure someone has passed someone else in early practices and Iowa’s brought in at least one graduate transfer, kicking off a massive
arms legs race in the Big Ten. Feel free to correct me in the comments, and vote for the best punter in the Big Ten in our poll!
Remember: No arguments about whether Ohio State really made that first down or if Penn State was the best team in the Big Ten. It’s PUNTERS DAY. Don’t ruin PUNTERS DAY.
And let punters run more fakes.