Having watched as our Northwestern Wildcats completed a furious comeback from 21-7 down at halftime of the 2010 Outback Bowl, we were delirious when a gadget play two-point conversion tied the score at 35-35 with a minute and a half remaining.
The Auburn kick returner fumbled at midfield. ‘Cats ball. Pandemonium.
Cautiously, Mike Kafka and Andrew Brewer linked up on a couple quick passes. Northwestern moved to the Auburn 26. On trotted kicker/punter Stefan Demos.
It drifted wide. It was Demos’ third miss of the game—his second field goal (both over 40 yards, a tough ask for a college kicker) to go with a missed PAT. In overtime, Demos would miss another field goal, from 37 yards off the right upright, though in the process an Auburn player rolled up on his ankle, both giving Northwestern a fresh set of downs and knocking Demos from the game.
The damage was done.
In the intervening decade, Northwestern has approached “competent special teams play”—for this I refer mostly to kicking and punting, though the 2012 numbers are undoubtedly inflated by Venric Mark’s proficiency as a return man—three times. They have never cracked the Top 25 nationally in a metric like S&P+, and in FEI they’ve got one Top 10 season (2012, again) and a handful of “meh”.
Northwestern Football Special Teams Ratings
|Year||S&P||S&P Rk||FEI||FEI Rk|
|Year||S&P||S&P Rk||FEI||FEI Rk|
Much of Pat Fitzgerald’s early tenure at Northwestern was characterized by longevity and, broadly, development at the kicking positions. Stefan Demos was a solid if unspectacular rugby-style punter from 2007-2008, his production dipped shockingly in 2009 as he was asked to both punt and kick—which he did until the fateful day in tampa—and remained an erratic-but-lengthy kicker in 2010. See also Jeff Budzien, the Golden Leg and only man my wife ever told me she’d leave me for after sitting next to him at Mass at Sheil. Budzien never had the longest leg, but he was golden from inside 40 (33 of 34, with no misses after his sophomore year) and productive from beyond 40 as well—12/17, good for 70.6%, better than half Northwestern’s kickers since.
This extended, too, to punting. Hunter Niswander—he of a brief stint as the best punter in the XFL—could step straight-on and boom ‘em, improving his hangtime, inside-20 rate, and 50+ statistics over the years. The ‘Cats, finally, could flip a few fields, and from 2015-2017 they did that with aplomb, vaulting back to bowl eligibility behind, mostly, a stout defense with longer fields over which to bend, not break.
The only specialist to noticeably worsen for the ‘Cats was P Brandon Williams, who was asked to roll out and rugby-style kick more in his 2013 season—a skill which, to my recollection (and WNUR’s corroboration), he seemed not to have.
That’s been increasingly troubling for Northwestern, as after Niswander, they’ve relied on a string of punters who have either struggled to develop or had limited eligibility:
- P Jake Collins is the lone bright spot (I say this not just because I met his dad on the El last year), booming punts 40.5 ypp in the Big Test West championship season of 2018—the Western Kentucky transfer posted the most fair catches (31 on 79 punts) and inside-20s (28) since Fitzgerald took over in 2006.
- Punters Dan Kubiuk and TCU transfer Andrew David were forgettable in 2019—the ‘Cats could not get out of their own end of the field, where the offense frequently stranded them, and bad rugby-style punting did not help.
- These issues have extended to the kicking—while Jack Mitchell will forever be a kick-god who won the Notre Dame game by hitting career bests multiple times that day, he was spotty at best, just 6/16 from beyond 40 (THREE of those were at Notre Dame!!!).
- Since then it’s been Charlie Kuhbander’s job, and while Kuhbander has been serviceable—6/10 from 30-39 in 2019—Pat Fitzgerald shows little desire to kick lengthy field goals, opting to go for it in 4th-and-7-type situations rather than kick from 40 or 45 yards.
- Kuhbander was spelled briefly by Drew Luckenbaugh, who broke Nebraska’s hearts in 2018, and later that year punter Collins, who was serviceable outside a really depressing kick at Iowa that fell short—it was from 38 yards. But he was a punter! That wasn’t his job. Collins also went 5/5 on PATs and made a field goal against both Minnesota and Illinois after an injured Luckenbaugh was pulled.
The problem? These issues appear prone to continue, with short-term solutions or underwhelming players with more tenure still on the depth chart in Evanston.
Kuhbander is back, supported by kickoff guy (probably) Trey Finison and long-snapper Tyler Gillikin. They should be serviceable, but I’m not holding my breath for a lot of made 40-yarders or touchbacks.
The highlight, though, is Northwestern’s return to everyone’s favorite Big Ten solution: GRAD TRANSFER PUNTER.
That’s right, the ‘Cats picked up Kent State Golden Flashes punter Derek Adams, who comes to Evanston as a graduate transfer with one year of immediate eligibility. Adams had been Second- and Third-Team All-MAC in 2017 and 2019, bringing with him a leg that has demonstrated ability to both flip the field (18% 50+ in 2019, 22% in 2017) and force fair catches. With a more athletic coverage team at Northwestern, I’m excited to see what Adams can do.
Derek Adams, Kent State
The problem, though, is that there once again appear to be no solutions in sight for Northwestern special teams. Since Flynn Nagel and Solomon Vault, the ‘Cats have not had a particularly threatening return man. Since Budzien, the ‘Cats have had no one I’d really want to trot out for a 40-yarder. Hell, Northwestern has not TRIED a 50-yarder since Budzien’s lone miss of 2012, at the end of the home loss to Nebraska. (I can’t confirm a single 50-yard field goal at Northwestern since football began in 1995—Mitchell, Demos, Amado Villarreal, and David Wasielewski all hit from 49.)
Part of this is the hit-or-miss nature of recruiting specialists: Kohls and the other services only have so many kickers, and Northwestern is not a particularly glamorous spot to land.
On punters, though, multiple Big Ten teams have dipped into Australia and elsewhere for talented punters with big legs. Chasing grad transfer to grad transfer is fine in the short term, but some development at both positions would be helpful.
With the offensive woes of the Northwestern offense and the relatively stout nature of the defense, former special teams coach Pat Fitzgerald and current special teams coach Jeff Genyk—whose son, Jake Genyk, is a punter on the roster—need to start developing some talent that keeps them in games.
Problem is, they’ve got a spotty history of making that happen.