2014 Northwestern football preview: special teams

Projected depth chart:

1. No. 8 Jack Mitchell, sophomore
2. No. 32 Hunter Niswander, redshirt freshman

1. No. 31 Chris Gradone, junior

Kick returner
1. No. 27 Matthew Harris, sophomore
2. No. 28 Justin Jackson, freshman
3. No. 15 Solomon Vault, freshman

Punt returner
1. No. 6 Tony Jones, senior
2. No. 83 Mike McHugh, sophomore

Long snapper
1. No. 52 Chris Fitzpatrick, sophomore

Key losses:
– Kicker Jeff Budzien (graduated, signed and subsequently released by Jacksonville Jaguars)
– Punter Brandon Williams (graduated)
– Long snapper Pat Hickey (graduated)

Saying goodbye:

For the first time in four years, Evanston is without its perennial Heisman candidate.

Chants of “Budzien for Heisman!” will no longer ring through the student section at Ryan Field, as the stalwart placekicker has graduated and moved on to pursue a professional football career. Without him, Northwestern faces an uncertain special teams future.

Jeff Budzien left a legacy but no clear replacement. Junior Arthur Omilian, who according to his player bio, was Budzien’s official backup last year, isn’t even competing for the starting role. Reports from training camp indicate that sophomore Jack Mitchell and redshirt freshman Hunter Niswander are fighting for the job, but with Niswander hobbled by an ankle injury it looks like Mitchell will be handling kickoffs and field goals to start the season.

Also gone is four-year starter punter Brandon Williams. Compounding NU’s offensive struggles last year, he had his worst season statistically and unceremoniously ended his career by ceding playing time to then-sophomore Chris Gradone. Now a junior, Gradone will be taking over punting duties full time. The small sample size is no sure indicator, but with 11 boots last season, Gradone averaged 37.8 yards per punt, an improvement over Williams’ 36-yard average.

Return games:

The depth charts for kickoff and punt returner remain muddled after injuries pressed a host of players into those roles last year. Senior running back and 2012 All-American Venric Mark didn’t have the opportunity to return a single punt last season thanks to his injury woes, and his transfer deprives the Cats of a true special teams playmaker.

The sure-handed Tony Jones handled the majority of punts last year but was used to secure fair catches more than anything else — the senior wide receiver ran back just nine punts for an average of 7.1 yards. But based on camp reports, reliability is exactly what coach Pat Fitzgerald is looking for. Jones will continue to handle most of the punts, with the unexciting sophomore wide receiver Mike McHugh serving as his primary backup. Noticeably absent from the mix are speedsters freshman cornerback Parrker Westphal and junior wideout Miles Shuler.

Last season’s kickoffs were shared between then-freshmen cornerback Matthew Harris and running back Stephen Buckley. Both performed admirably, but both are also expected to make bigger contributions at their respective positions in their sophomore campaigns. Harris will still see time back deep, but with Buckley’s health in question look for freshman running backs Justin Jackson and Solomon Vault to take over for him.

The other ‘Fitz’:

Last but not least, taking over long snapping duties for graduated three-year starter Pat Hickey is sophomore Chris Fitzpatrick. There isn’t much to say about any long snapper, but according to his player bio, Fitzpatrick was “regarded as one of the best long snappers in the country in 2012” and was rated the No. 6 long snapper in his class by ESPN (look no further for signs of NU’s success on the recruiting trail). Hopefully, a talent such as his just makes life easier for Mitchell and Gradone.

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Twitter: @BobbyPillote