Wisconsin seeking improvements across the board with special teams
MADISON, Wis. -- The top placekicker, punter and return man are back for the Wisconsin football team, which is a comforting circumstance. But contentment is probably the last thing UW coach Gary Andersen wants to see from his special teams heading into the start of preseason camp at Camp Randall Stadium.
Jack Russell is back after making 9 of 13 field goals and all 34 PAT kicks in 2013, but the Badgers had a field goal conversion rate under 70 percent for the second year in a row -- this after seven consecutive seasons above that.
Drew Meyer is back after averaging 38.6 yards per punt -- including 19 inside the 20 -- but that was well off his totals from 2012 when he averaged 41.5 with 36 inside the 20.
Kenzel Doe is back to return kickoffs and punts, but while he led the Big Ten Conference with a 26.5-yard average on kickoffs -- including a 91-yard scoot for a touchdown -- his punt return average of 7.2 yards was less than half of the league leaders.
In short, there's room for improvement in all areas and no time for complacency.
Russell, who is 9-for-15 (.600) in his career handling field goals, will be challenged by Andrew Endicott, who handled kickoffs last season, and incoming scholarship freshman Rafael Gaglianone.
Rated one of the top kickers in the nation out of Baylor High School in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Gaglianone demonstrated a strong, accurate leg during his prep career as an exchange student from Sao Paulo, Brazil.
Andersen said he expects Gaglianone to be an immediate factor on the depth chart. Among the reasons why Gaglianone picked UW over an offer from NC State were the opportunity to kick in the cold -- a must for someone aspiring to get to the NFL -- and to contribute immediately.
"He has a strong leg on film," Andersen said of Gaglianone, a former soccer player. "He's done a nice job developing. We'll see how he handles the moment and how he moves forward.
"But we've got three kickers that are going to compete for that spot. May the best man win."
Meanwhile, Meyer will try to regain his form with true freshman P.J. Rosowski looking to unseat him.
Doe, a wide receiver, enters his senior season with a shot at becoming the all-time UW leader in kickoff return average. He currently averages 25.5 yards per return. Former teammate Jared Abbrederis had a 25.8 average.
Andersen said he expects Doe to be brimming with confidence as a return man. His career-best 91-yard runback came against South Carolina in the Capital One Bowl.
A key initiative during preseason camp will be to create some depth behind Doe.
Andersen and Jeff Genyk, the tight ends assistant who also coordinates special teams, will be looking to upgrade performance on a variety of fronts after an uneven 2013.
UW led the Big Ten in kickoff returns overall at 23.1 yards per attempt and was third in kickoff coverage with a net average of 40.4.
The Badgers also employed one of the best overall units in the nation. They didn't allow a punt return for a touchdown; didn't yield a punt return of 20 or more yards; and didn't allow a kickoff return for a TD or one to exceed 50 yards. Arizona and Florida State are the only other Football Bowl Subdivision schools to make that claim.
During the past two seasons, spanning two coaching staffs and 162 kickoffs, UW has allowed just five kickoff returns in excess of 30 yards. Only Florida, Rice and Nebraska have allowed fewer among FBS clubs.
However, the Badgers ranked in the second half of the Big Ten in converting field goals (14-for-21, .667), net punting (35.7 yards) and punt return average (7.4).
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