Sometimes you don’t know what you have until it is gone, and for large parts of the past 30 years the Wisconsin Badgers were blessed with some great special teams players. That trend went down for the first half of the 2010’s.
But, with a veteran kicker, punter and long snapper in the mix, it appears a once sore-spot could become another strength for this team.
Following an injury-plagued sophomore season, kicker Rafael Gaglianone was back to booming kicks and being more accurate in 2017. He hit 16 of 18 field goal attempts (88.9 percent) and was second in the Big Ten in field goal accuracy last year. There’s also a much more solid performance from scholarship kicker Anthony Lotti to build on.
But, those are only two pieces to a large puzzle for the specialist unit in 2018.
State of the Position: Solid to Great
How could this position group be called anything but solid when you’ve got Rafael Gaglianone returning for his final season in Madison? I mean that dude is as solid as they come…both in build and ability. After struggling through injuries in 2016, he got back on track in accuracy and length as a field goal kicker last season. Gaglianone is also one of the most loved players on the team and jovial folks you will ever meet.
Some may point to Anthony Lotti ranking 12th in the Big Ten in punting average and worry about that part of the puzzle. But, as with everything stat-related in college football, the devil is in the details. It seems like Lotti’s overall average being just 40.0 yards per punt is very misleading, considering he only had two punts for touchbacks, forced 18 fair catches and had 25 of his 57 punts inside the 20-yard line. He also booted 12 punts over 50 yards. That’s not a bad stat line considering UW punts more often to flip field position than out of being pushed back against its own end zone.
Adam Bay, the long snapper was quality last season and when you don’t have to question placement of snaps on kicks or know who is actually doing the snapping in specialist situations, the guy doing the snapping is doing his job right. There is little worry about this position either.
Biggest Question Mark: Who Replaces Nick Nelson at Punt Returner?
Nick Nelson was a huge piece of the puzzle as a transfer from Hawaii last season. There’s no doubt he lived up to billing as a cornerback, but he was one of the better punt returners UW has had in a while. He was mostly sure-handed and his 8.6 yards per return average was good for third in the Big Ten. He was also one of just three players who did punt returning duties on a full-time basis in the Big Ten to return one of them for a touchdown.
Wisconsin will go through a wide range of players in fall camp to figure out who best fits as a punt returner. The good news is that there seems to be a group of speedy and young wide receivers who could be stepping up. Sophomore Jack Dunn and early enrollee Aron Cruickshank seem the most likely to emerge as the main contenders. Cruickshank may be the fastest player on the team and he put himself in great position to be a contributor in a crowded group of receivers. Look for him to be the name that wins the job as long as he proves he can hang on to the football in fall camp.
P: Anthony Lotti, Connor Allen
K: Rafael Gaglianone, Zach Hintze,
KR: A.J. Taylor, Jack Dunn or Isaac Guerendo
PR: Aron Cruickshank, Jack Dunn