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2023 Northwestern Wildcats Football Preview: Special Teams

A transfer-laden specialist core with one (OK, maybe a second) glaring weakness.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 23 Northwestern at Michigan Photo by Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

For those of you keeping track at home, much like students emailing me literally this moment (two days after their take-home final was due) to ask me “what [they] could do to pass this class,” this is your Northwestern Week Sunday Wrap-Up.

Nice part about taking points off already-bad late work is that the 10% penalty per day doesn’t hurt nearly as bad. 20% of 1-11 still rounds back up to 1-11.

I wasn’t planning to do a special teams preview of Northwestern — as I wrote about all the way back in 2020, Northwestern has generally pasted together a semi-decent punting unit (if Jake Collins’s dad still reads this blog or Googles his son’s name, it was an excellent punting unit in 2018) but cannot find or develop a kicker to save their damn lives. It is frustrating to write about a unit that, hypothetically, at which Northwestern should excel or at least not be miserable, thinking about the socioeconomic status of a number of kickers whose folks have the time to shell out for a 5-star kicking camp.

But then Michigan WR/PR AJ Henning decided to celebrate Northwestern Week by transferring to Evanston and the kid actually is deciding to take a nap, so hey! Why not?

The Specialist Guys in the Room

The weird thing with this Northwestern roster? At least three of the five specific positional players here—K, P, KR, PR, LS—are transfers. I don’t know what that says about the...

...well, we’ll come back to that.

Long Snapper: Will Halkyard

Halkyard is from Glen Ellyn, home of 2022-23 EuroCup Basketball MVP John Shurna.

That is the most important thing you will learn in this article.

Kicker: Jack Olsen?

North Dakota transfer Adam Stage (yes, the Fighting Hawks and/or Fightin’ Nazi Memorabilia Enthusiasts) went 17/17 on PATs, which was good, because that was about the extent of his range. His season long field goal was 35 yards.

Despite expectations that Michigan State transfer Jack Olsen would handle the kicking duties, Stage must have won it in training camp. But Stage has graduated, meaning it’s Olsen’s job to lose in 2023, I’d assume.

Olsen, who does have a bigger leg, handled kickoff duty in 2022 and promptly managed only a 21% touchback rate. He also made a PAT and distinguished himself in the wisconsin game by missing a 21-yard field goal, his only attempt of the year.

Jacob Tabibian is also here.

Punter/Holder: Luke Akers

A UCLA transfer, Akers (yes, that Akers—his father) saw his averages tumble as the season wore on, but put about a third of all his punts inside the 20 and only hit three touchbacks.

He’s serviceable, though perhaps not with the biggest leg in the world. Northwestern was playing from behind and going for it on fourth down—or, more likely, turning it over—often enough that Akers only punted 45 times. That’s good: keep the leg fresh for all the punting you’ll do in 2023, kid.

His backup, Hunter Renner, is a replacement-level punter.

Kick Returner: AJ Henning

The Wolverine transfer attempted 11 returns last year for 241 yards, which is surprisingly few and also just two yards more per return than Evan Hull, who ran out nine kicks for 181.

Henning might be joined out there by WR Ray Niro III. Regardless, Northwestern is not really the “try to run a kick back” team—more often than not you’ll see the ‘Cats wave for a fair catch and start the business of going three-and-out from their own 25. It’s more comfortable that way, like a warm bowl of soup on a chilly afternoon.

Punt Returning: AJ Henning

Henning was second in all FBS with 28 punt returns in 2022, which will be an interesting change of pace if he’s allowed to field and return them in Evanston—Northwestern attempted 8 returns in all of 2022, with Illinois transfer (sense a theme?) Donny Navarro III racking up a whopping 19 yards.

The ex-Wolverine was slightly better with those 28 returns netting 201 yards, an average of 7.18 per attempt. Henning also ran one back, a feat no Wildcat has managed since Tony Jones in 2014.

I do not remember a Tony Jones ever playing for Northwestern, but kudos to that dude.

Take away Henning’s 61-yard touchdown and he had 27 for 140, a substantially worse margin and one that invites a deal of risk. Pat Fitzgerald, you will recall, is a notably risk-averse human being who prefers to watch his teams quietly smothered in the silence of a crisp autumn day in Evanston. Will he unleash Henning? Time will tell.

The Coordinator Old Coaching Buddy: Jeff Genyk

Genyk was Pat Fitzgerald’s coach when Fitz was still a linebacker at Northwestern, then coached alongside his former pupil in Evanston, being with the program in total from 1994-2003. That got him the job at Eastern Michigan, where he distinguished himself by going 16-42 in five seasons in Ypsilanti.

Genyk later coached running backs at wisconsin and Nevada, which got him the job as RB/ST coordinator at Vanderbilt under Derek Mason. Let’s see how that went!

Genyk was successful with Ralph Webb at the running back position, mentoring Webb on his way to becoming Vanderbilt’s all-time leading rusher. Webb did not fumble the ball at all during the 2016 season, his first under Genyk.

On special teams, however, it was a different story. In 2017, Vanderbilt finished 12th in the SEC in gross yards per punt, 11th in yards per punt return and last in the conference in field goal percentage. However, they did finish in the top five in the conference in yards per kick return.

In December, sophomore punter Sam Loy announced he was leaving the university and returning home to California to train. [Vanderbilt Hustler]

I’m trying to imagine how bad you have to be at something to get fired by Derek Mason.

Ever loyal to dudes he used to coach with (see also: O’Neil, Jim) Fitz threw Genyk a lifeline in 2018 when the NCAA allowed a tenth coach, putting him in charge of the Wildcats’ special teams. Coincidentally, I’m sure, Northwestern has neither return a kick or punt for a touchdown nor made a 50-yard field goal in that timeframe.

What to expect in 2023?

More of the same. Unless Henning’s really damn good or Olsen’s learned how to bang 40-yarders with ease, Northwestern special teams will continue being a net-minus unit.

In a way, it’s an excellent metaphor for the recent atrophy under Pat Fitzgerald: loyal to a fault, Fitz finds coaches who scratch a particular itch for him—mostly nostalgic ones, though Genyk took over the tight end coaching in 2022 and instantly Marshall Lang and Thomas Gordon learned how to catch passes—and won’t say no to the style of ball he wants to play. That means continued fair catches, no confidence in kickers who inspire none in the first place, and mediocre special teams in a league that demands excellence.

No number of transfers will change that until Fitzgerald jettisons the system that wastes them in the first place.

Check out all of Northwestern Week 2023!

Monday: Cocktail Party Preview || Tuesday: The New Ryan Field || Wednesday: The Offense || Thursday: Was there defense? || Also Thursday: I’m sure a writer did a Predictions Potluck, right? || Friday: HATE or at least mild disdain || Sunday: Oh, here’s the defense || Also Sunday: Special Teams || Also Also Sunday: Predictions?