Often times, it’s the little things that matter most in football, tipping the scales in tight games. The clutch field goal that quiets the road crowd. Or the artful punt that pins the other guys deep in their own territory. Punters and placekickers are largely anonymous cogs in a program’s massive wheel, even to their own head coach. But when they’re on center stage, they can be as instrumental as the quarterback.
A handful of programs will begin this season with a Lou Groza Award candidate. And others boast a Ray Guy Award contender. Only a select group of schools, though, can say they’re worthy of being on the 2015 Ray Groza (or Lou Guy) Award Watch List, recognizing those teams carrying both an all-star-caliber punter and placekicker as the centerpieces of their special teams units.
15. Kansas State
The Wildcats are one of the few schools in America with both talent and depth at placekicker, a luxury in case the regular catches a case of the yips. Matthew McCrane led the country in field goal percentage as a rookie, converting 18-of-19 field goals. But Jack Cantele, who’s made 16 of his 22 career attempts, remains on the roster, and strong-legged Ian Patterson will again handle kickoffs. Nick Walsh performed well after taking over the punting chore in Week 2, averaging 41.3 yards and having more than half of his punts either fair caught or downed inside the 20.
Al Golden was none too pleased with his overall special teams unit in 2015, but he couldn’t rant too much about his kicking specialists. In fact, he received solid efforts from a pair of newcomers, Florida transfer P Justin Vogel and true freshman PK Michael Badgley. Vogel was named to the All-ACC Third Team for averaging just below 43 yards an attempt. And Badgley stepped in for an injured Matt Goudis to connect on 14-of-18 field goals. However, four missed extra points is the kind of thing that cannot be repeated this fall.
The Wildcat special teams will be built around the returning First Team All-SEC placekicker, Austin MacGinnis, and a three-year starting punter, Landon Foster. Foster has a career average of 42.2 yards, and he tied for twelfth nationally with 27 punts inside opponents’ 20-yard line. MacGinnis was a very pleasant surprise in his debut, converting 21-of-27 field goal attempts, including three from outside 50 yards. He basically rewrote the Kentucky record books in 2014, and he could own all of the career marks before he’s through in Lexington.
The Wolf Pack special teamers will be solid again in 2015, thanks to the returns of juniors Alex Boy and Brent Zuzo. The staff knew what it had in Zuzo, who’s steadily nailed 28-of-35 career field goal tries. While he doesn’t have a booming leg, he’s usually solid inside 45 yards. But Boy helped carry this unit to a higher level by unexpectedly leading the Mountain West with a 44-yard average and being named to the all-conference second team. And with a full season of reps now behind him, his productivity will continue to head north.
Chris Petersen always places great emphasis on special teams, and it showed in his first season in Seattle. Despite breaking in a new punter and placekicker, the Huskies held up rather well, especially in coverage. PK Cameron Van Winkle was the much-needed nightcap for an offense that too often stumbled in the red zone, making 20-of-24 field goal tries to earn honorable mention All-Pac-12. And 230-pound Korey Durkee averaged more than 42 yards a punt, with his rugby-style approach pushing U-Dub to the top of the league standings in punt return D.
The Tigers’ latest Aussie punter, Jamie Keehn, is on the verge of becoming an All-SEC performer in his finale. The 25-year-old bounced back from a rocky sophomore season to rank No. 9 nationally with a 44.9-yard average. He has a powerful leg, but just needs to fine-tune his mechanics and consistency. LSU is more worried about its kickers, Colby Delahoussaye and Trent Domingue, who slumped late last year. The hope is that a minor tweak in foot placement will result in a revival of 2013, when Delahoussaye made all but one of 15 field goal tries.
Bama’s JK Scott is to punters what Florida State’s Roberto Aguayo is to placekickers—a bona fide weapon who can change the momentum of a game with his foot. Scott authored the best season ever by a Tide punter, leading the nation in average and net punting … as a true freshman. His ability to control field position and pin opponents makes it doubly difficult to navigate the Bama D. The Tide would be ranked even higher if not for the uncertainty surrounding PK Adam Griffith, who hit just 12-of-19 field goals in 2014. However, he also endured a recurring stress fracture in his back, and is better than last year’s numbers when healthy.
Very, very quietly, the Tigers , led by assistant James Shibest, have been among the nation’s tightest special teams units in recent years. It’s a trend that’ll continue in 2015. The cornerstones will be PK Jake Elliott, the reigning American Special Teams Player of the Year, and all-star P Spencer Smith. Elliott can hit from just about anywhere on the field, and he’s a major asset on kickoffs. But needs to improve his accuracy after going 6-of-16 on field goals longer than 40 yards. While Smith needs more from his long game, his ability to neutralize the opposition allowed Memphis to rank No. 4 nationally in punt return defense.
7. Wake Forest
In an otherwise rocky season, the Demon Deacons did a lot of things well on special teams in 2014. Coverage was sound, the punting game was among the best in the league and rookie PK Mike Weaver hit all but four of his 19 field goal tries. And since both Weaver and Second Team All-ACC P Alexander Kinal are back for another season, Wake Forest will again be rock-solid in this phase of the game. Kinal ranked No. 4 nationally in net punting a season ago, and remarkably did not have a single touchback on his 81 attempts.
6. Arizona State
The Sun Devils were a mixed bag of results on special teams last season. But the specialists, P Matt Haack and All-Pac-12 PK Zane Gonzalez, did more good than harm. In two years, Gonzalez has made 47-of-57 field goal attempts, though the program has only given him one shot to split the uprights from outside 49 yards. Haack averaged a healthy 43.3 yards last season, though new assistant Shawn Slocum is looking for him to tighten up his fundamentals this offseason to help support a punt coverage team that underachieved in 2014.
The Frogs not only harbor one of the best punter-placekicker pairings in college football, but also one of the most experienced. Jaden Oberkrom and Ethan Perry have been special teams fixtures in Fort Worth the past three years. Oberkrom earned First Team All-Big 12 in 2014, and was the nation’s most prolific scoring placekicker. He can reach the uprights from well beyond 50 yards and is clutch in crucial spots. Perry’s average has slid in each of the last two years, a concern. Still, he’s a 6-4, 230-pounder, whose hang time and placement were central to TCU leading the nation in punt return D.
4. West Virginia
The Mountaineers would prefer it if PK Josh Lambert gets fewer opportunities this fall, but they’re ecstatic he’s around to finish stalled drives. The Lou Groza Award finalist hit 30-of-39 field goals, while setting a single-season NCAA record for three-pointers beyond 40 yards. In fact, Lambert was 4-of-5 outside of 50. Former JUCO transfer P Nick O’Toole is looking to recapture his 2013, All-Big 12 form after his net average dropped 3.7 yards. He spent time this offseason with former West Virginia—and current Pro Bowl—P Pat McAfee to help smooth out some of the bad habits developed in 2014.
3. Florida State
If Roberto Aguayo remains in Tallahassee for four years, he could go down as one of the greatest placekickers in the history of college football. He’s had a remarkable first two seasons in Tallahassee, hitting 48-of-52 field goals. And his accuracy and range will be even more profound now that Jameis Winston won’t be directing the Florida State red-zone offense in 2015. Senior Cason Beatty will again be the punter, looking to build off a very strong second-half to last season that should earn attention from NFL teams. Almost half of his 48 attempts had to be fair caught in 2014.
PK Ross Martin and P Will Monday, proven seniors who both earned All-ACC Third Team in 2014, form their league’s best specialist duo entering the upcoming season. Martin missed just a pair of field goals a year ago, and he’s 52-of-63 through three seasons as a Blue Devil. Monday has been on the job for three years as well. Last season, he averaged 43 yards an attempt, while raising his net average almost two yards to 39.7 yards. If Monday keeps improving, he could be punting on Sundays next fall.
Tom Hackett and Andy Phillips give the Utes the nation’s best punter-placekicker combination, respectively, entering the 2015 season. And it’s really not even up for debate. Both specialists were named First Team All-Pac-12 a year ago, Hackett earning the Ray Guy Award for the nation’s premier punter, and Phillips impressively nailing 12-of-15 field goals from beyond 40 yards. With Hackett’s ability to bury opponents deep in their own territory, and Phillips’ range and accuracy, Utah enjoys an enormous hidden edge that’s particularly valuable in the latter stages of tossup games.