One simple play last season summed up all that had gone wrong for Wisconsin football. With the score tied at 17 against Michigan, it seemed obvious that the Badgers were going to let a Wolverine punt fall uncaught, not attempt to return it, and hope that they could win it in overtime. Unfortunately, then-freshman Brett Bell touched the ball, and the Wolverines recovered and kicked the game-winning field goal.
“It’s just like anything else,” said first-year special-teams coach Brian Murphy. “Once something like that happens, you have to move on. There is no sense dwelling on it, and you can’t change it or go back and fix it. You have to move on, even as unfortunate as that play was — you have to push on and keep your eyes forward.”
That play alone is not the only one that needs to be pushed back. All season long special-teams play seemed to bring down the overall performance of the Badgers.
Against Fresno State, UW allowed the Bulldogs to run back the second-half kickoff for a touchdown, sparking a Fresno State comeback after they were down 10 at half. Against Oregon the week before the Badgers lost by a meager three points. That day the Badgers missed their only field goal attempt from 46 yards out.
It appeared that the special-teams play last season buckled after losing the nation’s top punter Kevin Stemke and reliable kicker Vitaly Pisetsky to graduation. Kickers Adam Espinoza, Mike Allen and Mark Neuser were streaky and inconsistent when it came to field goals, extra points and kick-offs. Punter R.J. Morse established himself as the team’s top punter, but his inexperience was still evident.
Coverage was lacking; four punts were blocked and one kick return was run back 96 yards for an all-too-easy 6 points by Fresno State. Returner Nick Davis, who had five career touchdowns on run-backs, was never able to crack coverage to go all the way and managed to average 22 yards on kick returns and only 12.3 on punt returns.
Now, as the spring season has begun, one of the largest tasks to tackle is sorting through the mess known as special teams.
The first thing that was done was the release of special-teams coach Darrell Wilson. Now Brian Murphy is the one who has to put together the cards he has been dealt.
“Right now everything is a concern,” said Murphy. “We’re still sorting through [what we have], and we have the chance to give a lot of players on this team the opportunity to play.”
Since it is only spring, the availability of players is limited. Neuser, a junior, opted to sit out practices to focus on academics while kicking recruits Scott Campbell (a junior-college transfer) and Pennsylvania native Matthew Domonkos won’t be available until next fall.
While it is still too early to tell who will head each position, Murphy is taking advantage of the time he has now to evaluate the performance of the players available and to see who might emerge as front-runners.
“We start the season out four deep at each position, and now we just want to see who we have and who will rise to the occasion,” said Murphy. “We’re just seeing who we have right now, and 15 practices in spring is a long time and it will take us that long to come up with the guys who are going to give us the great effort and enthusiasm.”
As for the kickers, Allen and Espinoza have the opportunity to show improvement from last season. Allen connected on six of nine field-goal attempts but was 0-2 on tries from 40 yards and out. Espinoza was used primarily for kick-offs and did not attempt any extra points or field goals. Last season, Nueser went 8-12 for field goals and a perfect 22-22 on extra points.
Morse, who averaged 40.7 yards per punt, is still the front-runner for punter, but junior Kirk Munden, who averaged 39.7 yards on his 35 punts last season, will look to compete.
The one area that has left the biggest void to fill is the return position. With Davis gone to graduation, the position is up for grabs. Right now in practice, senior wide receiver Lee Evans and sophomore defensive back Scott Starks are snagging the balls down field.
“You don’t want to count on anyone that is not here,” emphasized Murphy. “You are playing with the guys you have here now, and if someone in this recruiting class comes along and helps you then it is a bonus. But right now we have to find guys for the lineup against Fresno State in this group now.”