Offseason Position Preview: Special Teams

Go Gophers!
Christian Eldred executed 67 of Minnesota's 69 punts last year.

Go Gophers!
Christian Eldred executed 67 of Minnesota's 69 punts last year.
Go Gophers!

July 9, 2013

OVERVIEW
No matter what happened in the past, each football practice or game provides a whole new opportunity. Even if it may seem like someone has a starting position locked up, coaches and players always say that everyone must compete to earn playing time.

This challenge is especially real for the Minnesota special teams this offseason. As the Gophers look to improve in that area, defensive backs and special teams coach Jay Sawvel sees competition as a key to push veterans and newcomers alike to become better.

FOCUS ON: RETURNS
Naturally, the Gophers hope that their defense will limit the amount of kick-returning they need to do. But they will automatically receive at least one kickoff every game, and someone will have to be downfield to get it. Troy Stoudermire, the NCAA’s all-time leader in kick returns and kick return yardage, was a senior last season, so some less-experienced returners will fill in that spot.

Several returning players, including sophomore KJ Maye and junior Marcus Jones, caught kicks or punts last season.  Junior Cedric Thompson did some catching during spring practice, and Sawvel said he will likely continue to work on it in the fall. Returns could also be something the Gophers ask freshmen to do, depending on how they progress.

KEY RETURNERS
Sawvel said as of now, senior Jake Filkins is the long snapper, but all other special teams spots are yet to be determined. Filkins snapped for 59 of 69 punts, 15 of 22 field goals and 25 of 34 extra-point tries last year.

Senior Chris Hawthorne is the only kicker on the Gopher roster with collegiate kicking experience. He saw limited action last year, as Jordan Wettstein was the starting kicker. Although he is a senior and has college experience, Hawthorne will face tough competition in the fall.

“That’s a big open book right now, who will be our kicker and who will be our punter, because those are things I couldn’t tell you right now,” Sawvel said.

Junior Christian Eldred accounted for all but two of the Gophers’ punts in 2012, but newcomers will challenge him, as well.

NEW FACES TO WATCH
The Gophers will have to wait until fall to see how freshmen fit in as far as returning, blocking and providing coverage. But they already know that newcomers will play a prominent role in the kicking game.

“We’ve got three freshmen that’ll be on campus this fall that are going to have every opportunity to compete and get that type of job,” Sawvel said. “I think, probably more than anything, that’s what we need. We need serious competition. We’ve got to get better in that. We need to take the same kind of step in the kicking game that we did defensively last year.”

Ryan Santoso, ranked the seventh-best kicker in the nation by ESPN, signed with the Gophers in February. As a senior, he was perfect on PATs and made 14 of 17 field goals, including a long of 42 yards. Santoso could contend for playing time both placekicking and punting.

Andrew Harte and Justin Juenemann also join the Gopher roster. During his senior season, Harte made a 54-yard field goal and held a kickoff average of 65 yards. Going back to the previous year, he rattled off a streak of 112 made PATs.

Junemann made 80 percent of his career field goal attempts between 40 and 50 yards, including a long of 46 yards. He was 84-of-92 on PATs during his last two seasons.

Kyle Fodness will also compete for a spot. The high school soccer standout redshirted his true freshman season in 2012 after his first season playing football.

CLOSING THOUGHTS
“In the special teams part of it, we feel good that we’ve got talent,” Sawvel said. “We feel good that we’ve got competition. But I couldn’t tell you who they are right now. That’s a big evaluation that’s going to have to take place in the fall. We’ll be good. We’ll be better than what we were in all the phases, because, in large part, I think we’ll be better kicking it and punting it. I think we’ll be better overall with the other people on the field, the blocking and doing some other things that will help us in the return game.”