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Big Ten Football 2023: Purdue Special Teams Preview

Talking about the area of the game where Iowa scores all their points

Syndication: Detroit Free Press
Reliable Fineran is gone

As a proud member of the 2011 Carsen Wiggs for Heisman campaign, I can tell you that Purdue’s special teams performance holds a truly special place in my heart.

We told you earlier today that the Purdue special teams does not have a dedicated assistant coach this season. They do have a director of special teams operations - who is not allowed to coach on gameday - and a couple of assistants in defensive coordinator Kevin Kane and TEs coach Seth Doege that have been special teams coordinators in the past.

How will the lack of a dedicator special teams coordinator affect Purdue’s special teams blocking, coverage, and execution? Will Purdue’s special teams be more aggressive on punt returns than under Brohm? Answers to both questions will have to wait until the actual season as there simply isn’t a track record for the head coach and too many question marks about who will be taking ultimate responsibility for special teams this year.

What I can tell you however, is whom the players participating in the important special teams roles are likely to be.

Place Kicker/Kickoff Specialist

Syndication: Journal-Courier
Ben Freehill kicking off
Nikos Frazier / Journal & Courier / USA TODAY NETWORK

Following the departure of fifth year kicker MItchell Fineran, Purdue currently has four kickers on the roster and it’s expected to be a wide open competition for both the place kicking (FGAs and XPAs) and the kickoff duties.

Redshirt senior Ben Freehill (formerly of Oklahoma State) returns after having kickoff duties for four games last season. He averaged 55.9 yards/kickoff and had just one touchback on his 12 kickoffs. 2021 went a little better for him as he was the kickoff specialist for the final seven games averaging 60.7 yards/kickoff and achieving touchbacks on 15 of his 42 kickoffs. Freehill is yet to attempt a field goal at Purdue.

Caleb Krockover is a redshirt sophomore who has seen action in just one game so far in his career when he converted an extra point against Indiana State last season. That is the extent of Krockover’s appearances for the Boilers so far.

Julio Macias is a redshirt freshman, and if my information is correct (there is a good chance it isn’t) the one and only scholarship kicker on the roster. He also appeared in the Indiana State game last season, kicking off twice for a total of 130 yards. Julio likely has the biggest leg in this competition but is still green at the college level.

The final kicker on the roster didn’t join the team until fall camp. Iain Ramage is a redshirt freshman out of Illinois who has joined the roster after participating in a specialist camp at Purdue over the summer. He reportedly impressed the staff at the camp both by winning a punt competition and with his kickoffs.

If I had to guess, I would speculate that the kickoff competition will come down to Freehill, Macias, and Ramage while field goals attempts will be between Freehill, Macias, and Krockover. If you asked me to pick a favorite for either job, I would pick Freehill. Both jobs are available for whomever grabs them though, and the inexperience at the college level in the kicking game could potentially haunt Purdue at times this year as players adjust to being in the spotlight.


Syndication: Journal-Courier
Jack Ansell punting
Alex Martin/Journal and Courier / USA TODAY NETWORK

The punting position has not been a huge advantage for Purdue the past few years. Hopefully with the new coaching staff, the players are able to improve upon last year’s mark. Returning to the roster are three punters.

Junior Jack Ansell returns as the likely starting punter for Purdue. Last year he added 3.7 yards to his punting average to raise his number to 41.9 yards/punt. His career long came against Florida Atlantic at 67 yards. The leg strength is there, but Ansell has struggled with consistency leading to shorter punts from time to time.

Last season’s backup punter Brendan Cropsey made two punts in 2022: one against Indiana State (the benches were in fact emptied against the Sycamores) and one against Iowa when Ansell was having a rough day. His long punt came against Iowa at 47 yards while his other was still 41 yards.

The third and final punter on the roster is redshirt freshman Bennett Boehnlein. Boehnlein has yet to play for the Boilermakers. In high school he averaged just under 40 yards per punt so he’s not too far off the numbers that Ansell and Cropsey have put up and could potentially compete for the job.

Ansell is most likely to be the starting punter for Purdue this season just as he has been the past two seasons. If he improves as much this offseason as he did last offseason, Purdue will even have a middle of the pack punting game. The past two seasons however have been near the bottom of the conference though and so Ansell’s hold on the job isn’t secure. He will have to re-win the job in fall camp with the new coaching staff.

As for the holder position, well typically that goes to either a punter or a backup QB. The QB depth chart is somewhat shallow this year and the consensus thinking at the moment by people like me dumb enough to project a holder for Purdue is that Ansell is the favorite to be the holder. I agree that if you are betting on one guy to be the holder, he’s the one but a) you should seek help if you are betting on who Purdue’s holder will be this season and b) the field is probably the overall favorite for the role.

Long Snapper

Syndication: Journal-Courier
Nick Taylor has the advantage of spending spring ball with the kicking units
Alex Martin/Journal and Courier / USA TODAY NETWORK

The Boilermakers have two long snappers on the roster following the graduation of Nick Zecchino. This is another position which is in an open competition.

Nick Taylor returns after backing up now departed graduate student Nick Zecchino. He has played in just one game - and yes, you guessed correctly; the opponent was Indiana State. It was assumed that Taylor would inherit the job this year, but after spring ball, the staff brought in another long snapper to compete as part of the staff’s plan to ensure competition at every position.

Daniel Hawthorne meanwhile has transferred in from Missouri where he was the starting long snapper last year. He had been the Tigers primary long snapper for the past three seasons, appearing in 27 games. I believe Hawthorne is still a walk-on (like he was at Mizzou) and I thought it was a little odd that he transferred away from a school he already had the job into an open competition, but he is following the former Missouri offensive line coach - and Walters and O’Brien were also on the Missouri staff for Hawthorne’s freshman year.

I suspect (and hope) either player can execute the duties of long snapper with fans noticing much of a difference. However, based on his larger amount of experience playing at the college level Hawthorne seems slightly more probable to win the job.

Kick Returner

Purdue v Maryland
Deion Burks
Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images

Here we enter even murkier waters of guessing. Last year’s primary kick returner was Deion Burks, but he didn’t have a large role in the offense. This season, Burks could compete for the last WR starting spot (for more on that check out tomorrow’s offensive preview), so the new staff may not want to expose him to risk of injury. Other returning kick returners from last year include Tyrone Tracy, Dylan Downing, and Andrew Sowinski.

Deion Burks returned 14 kickoffs for an average of 19.9 yards last season. Only Kobe Lewis (transfer portal) and Charlie Jones (NFL) also returned more than 1 kickoff on last season’s team. If Burks isn’t the primary kickoff returner, expect one of the younger speedy wide receivers to fill the role. Possibly redshirt freshmen Zion Steptoe and Curtis Deville Jr. could step into the role as both were track guys in high school and may have to wait until next season to break into the two-deeps at the WR spots.

Punt Returner

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 14 Northwestern at Purdue
TJ Sheffield’s only official punt return last year
Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Last year’s primary punt returner was Charlie Jones, who is gone. Andrew Sowinski and TJ Sheffield were also both trusted to field punts at different points last year and the two of them are probably the favorites to take the main job this year. Both have sure hands and should be able to be counted on.

Under Brohm, the punt returner was mostly just supposed to call for a fair catch. We will see if that changes at all under Walters or if it continues to be a don’t screw it up proposition.


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