Editor’s Note: In advance of Wisconsin kicking off its 2016 spring practice schedule Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium, The Daily Cardinal’s football preview package takes a look at what the Badgers’ focuses will be, positional battles and players to watch. The offense overview can be found here, and the defense overview here.
To understand the season Wisconsin’s 2015 special teams had, rewatch the Badgers’ Oct. 11 23-21 win at Nebraska.
Then-sophomore kicker Rafael Gaglianone hit 3-of-5 field goal attempts, converting from 45, 42 and 46 yards and missing from 43 and 46 yards. Gaglianone nailed the game-winning field goal with four seconds remaining in the game, but only after he missed a 37-yarder at the 2:07 mark and the UW defense somehow forced a quick Nebraska three-and-out, which burned just 23 seconds of clock.
Then-redshirt senior punter Drew Meyer’s six punts in that game averaged 38.5 yards, but he pinned the Cornhuskers inside their own 20-yard line just once, and he had two touchbacks when punting from near midfield, a prime situation to force opponents to start deep within their own territory.
Finally, current senior Andrew Endicott’s average season continued in Lincoln, Neb., as he forced a touchback on three of his six kickoffs.
The special teams performance in early October was representative of the entire season; it never hurt the Badgers in irreversible ways, but it certainly didn’t make things any easier. Given Wisconsin’s lack of a reliable aerial attack, which will likely roll into 2016, playing the field position game is incredibly important, and the bulk of that battle falls on the special teams units.
Meyer’s average yards per punt (39.67) were last in the Big Ten, a frustrating mark considering he was the fourth most-used punter in the conference.
With Meyer’s eligibility exhausted, Gaglianone and Endicott headline Wisconsin’s kicking game heading into spring practice and will hold on to those roles come fall. Gaglianone tied for third in the conference with 18 made field goals, but his 66.7 percent success rate was a far cry from the 86.4 conversion rate he had as a freshman. While the Brazilian-born placekicker was inconsistent throughout 2015, and he’ll miss Meyer, who was his holder for two seasons and was instrumental in preparing Gaglianone mentally for kicking at the collegiate level, there won’t be any surprises at the position during spring camp.
Beyond Endicott, who kicked off 36 times in 2015, Jack Russell (26 kickoffs) will graduate, and sophomore P.J. Rosowski, who is actually listed as a punter on the Wisconsin roster, will likely gets kickoff reps in the spring after fulfilling that duty nine times in 2015.
Rosowski was also the only other player beside Meyer to punt last season, but he did so just once. Redshirt senior Bart Houston showed off his Aussie-style punt a handful of times in 2014, but he’ll likely be preoccupied with running the Badger offense full-time this year. That leaves room for Rosowski; sophomore Connor Allen, who was ranked as the No. 1 high school punter in Wisconsin while at Brookfield East High School; and incoming freshman Anthony Lotti to battle for reps. The job appears to be Rosowski’s, but the three-way competition between him, Allen and Lotti, a three-star prospect from Flowery Branch, Ga., is vital to keep an eye on given how disappointing Wisconsin’s punting was last season.
Graduating wide receiver Alex Erickson handled most of the punt returning duties in 2015, but senior cornerback Sojourn Shelton (three returns) and redshirt junior Jazz Peavy (two) also saw action. Expect junior cornerback Natrell Jamerson, who was the primary kick returner a season ago, to retain his kick-returning stronghold and also get a shot at returning punts as well. Jamerson had the Badgers’ lone special teams touchdown last season, a slick first-quarter, 98-yard kick return against Maryland, and it would be silly to not at least feel out what his lateral quickness can do on punt returns.