Let’s start with the obvious. The placekicking game last year was an unmitigated disaster. Two different kickers combined to make just five out of 10 FGs. Both the field goals attempted and the field goals made were tied for third lowest in the nation. The percentage, though, was tied for fifth worst. It was bad. Oh, and they also missed two extra points.
We all know what happened in the UConn game. Sure, that wasn’t entirely the fault of the kicking unit. But, if the coaching staff had more (any?) faith in the placekicker, perhaps the situation would’ve played out differently.
On the flip side, the punting unit was outstanding. Nicholas Conte was brilliant. He had to punt a lot, because the offense was bad. He was tied for tenth in the nation in most punts. But he was 15th in punt average at 44.3 yards per punt. And because of that, the team was 15th in the nation in net punt average, at over 40 yards per punt. Only Miami was better in the ACC.
In the middle are the return and coverage units. The return game was actually quite good. The Hoos were 34th in the nation in punt return average, with Daniel Hamm finishing 20th. The Hoos were 20th in the nation in kick return average, with Joe Reed finishing 21st. In coverage, the story was not as good. The kick coverage unit placed 126th in the nation and the punt coverage unit was 65th.
Also, despite the lofty ratings for the return units, neither unit was able to create points. Yes the field position is important, especially with a poor offense. But the team was 115th in scoring. Reed was agonizingly close to breaking one for a TD, but was unable to. And Hamm’s had a couple of longer returns, but was also unable to take one back to the house. The best teams in the nation are always able to create points with their defenses and special teams and the Hoos were unable to do that last year.
Considering what happened last year, it is easy to say the PK will be better, punting will be worse and the return teams will be middle of the pack again. That’s generally what happens. It’s called regression to the mean.
The loss of Conte can’t be overstated. Hopefully, an improved offense means fewer punts. But those punts are going to come from somebody other than Conte, and that almost definitely means they’ll be worse. The top two candidates for the job are freshman Brian Delaney and junior Lester Coleman. Coleman is the younger brother of James Coleman, who was the backup punter in 2015 and had a strong season last year for Western Michigan averaging over 40 yards per punt.
Both of the kicking options from last year are gone. In their place are a number of candidates, all of whom have impressed to some degree during training camp. One of those options is Delaney. Though he’s a candidate for both jobs, he’s not likely to handle both. Coach Mendenhall has mentioned that it would be too much for a freshman to handle. He’s been better as a PK, so that’s where I think he’ll end. Coleman has been at least as good, if not better, at punter, so he’s my guess for that job. Freshman walk-on A.J. Mejia has been solid and has a big leg, so he’s the primary candidate for kickoffs.
Unlike the overhaul at the two specialist jobs, the returners aren’t likely to change much. Hamm was so good at PR for the Hoos that I can’t imagine anybody else back there. The yards were great, but even more important was the decision making. The single most important thing a PR does is decide when to return a kick, when to fair catch and when to let it go. Hamm was flawless back there last year, coming after several years of poor decision making under the previous regime. It is amazing what a competent special teams coach can do.
By the end of last season, Hamm was back for KO returns with Reed. But he only had one KR all season. The second-most actually went to Chris Sharp, who averaged just 18 yards per return. Still, Sharp has a chance to get back there again. It would be a good way to get the ball into his hands, because he’s still raw as a RB and there simply aren’t enough touches to get all the RBs into the offense. Additionally, this year’s recruiting class has some serious speed in Darnell Pratt, Shawn Smith and Terrell Jana. One of those three could return some kicks. Finally, Chuck Davis has been given some chances on both return units during camp. He’s got serious speed.
Other options include Olamide Zaccheaus (likely at PR) and Andre Levrone (KR). Both of them are dynamic players, but are potentially too valuable to the offense to use them on returns. Levrone is also potentially too injury prone to use on KR.
The coverage units will be better simply because of the increase in team speed and athleticism. This received a boost from the incoming class.
The only guy mentioned at all in the previous section who won’t be back next year is Hamm. That’s why we are likely to see some other guys get a chance at PR. That includes the true freshmen, Davis and Zaccheaus.
But the specialists will all be back. Delaney could factor in both P and PK for the next four years. Additionally, the Hoos have a commitment from one of the top kickers in the nation for next year, Hunter Pearson. Pearson has potential at both spots, but he figures to fit as PK first, simply because it’s a bigger need. That may change depending on the performance of the specialists this year.