The start of the college football season is less than a month away, making now a good time to dive more into what teams in the Big 12 will look like in 2018.
We’ve done that here by looking at position groups and ranking them from best to worst. Next up, we move on to looking at how special teams units across the Big 12 compare.
The Horned Frogs top this list because of the playmaking ability of their senior kick and punt return specialist, KeVontae Turpin. Turpin has speed and a unique ability to get upfield. Last season, he averaged 16.2 and 30.8 yards per punt and kick return, respectively. That’s good enough to be the best among all the returners who are back from 2017.
In addition, last year Cole Bunce and Jonathan Song were a combined 14 of 15 on field goals. Song is the better kicker, but Bunce is reliable and provides depth on the field goal unit. The real strength of the special teams, though, might be punter Adam Nunez. Nunez downed opponents inside the 20 yard line on the regular last season, a feat that helped get him on the Ray Guy Award watch list for 2018.
Baylor very quietly was one of the better kicking teams in the Big 12 last season. The best part of this rare bright spot for the Bears was sophomore Connor Martin, who made 83.3 percent of his field goals on the year and accounted for 7.5 points per game. Martin enters 2018 on the Lou Groza Award watch list, so his leg gives the Bears a decided advantage in their quest for six wins this season.
The Bears also finished second in the conference in net yardage per punt, averaging 40.7 yards per attempt in that category. That should help Matt Rhule’s defense in his second year, but Baylor will need to improve in both their kickoff and punt return units. All of those specialists are back this year, though, so some progress should be expected.
Oklahoma makes the upper half of this list almost solely because of Austin Seibert, a player who takes care of placekicking and punting for the Sooners. Seibert is on the watch list for both the Lou Groza Award and Ray Guy Award, proof of his versatility. The junior is probably most dangerous as a kicker, though, having made 81 percent of his field goals in 2017, his longest from 51 yards out.
The Sooners bring back their returners from last season, which is a good thing. Both kick and punt return units should look to improve from some of their below-average performances a year ago.
4. Oklahoma State
The Pokes are in the top half of the Big 12 because they might produce the best overall kicking game in 2018. Senior punter Zach Sinor averaged 43.1 yards per punt last year and junior kicker Matt Ammendola is on the watch list for the Lou Groza Award. Some Oklahoma State fans were probably upset that Ammendola missed six field goal kicks last season, second-most in the Big 12.
Yet, Ammendola also had the most attempts in the conference with 29, almost two per game. In addition, he managed one of the longest kicks in the conference in 2017 by nailing a 53-yarder.
Kickoff coverage for the Cowboys was also above average last season, when Oklahoma State netted 39.5 yards per kick. With both punt and kick returners back, those units should help make special teams more of a strength for Oklahoma State in 2018.
5. Kansas State
Bill Snyder is known for having great special teams, and his 2017 squad ranked in the top three of the conference in multiple kicking and punting categories. Unfortunately, almost all of the Wildcats’ specialists from last season are gone.
Kansas State did have the third-best kickoff coverage in the Big 12 last season, though, and whoever ends up returning both kicks and punts will surely find some holes to run through. As long as long time Wildcat assistant Sean Snyder is still on staff, it’s difficult to project this unit in the bottom of the conference.
After losing the best punter in school history, it makes sense to think that the Longhorns will take a step back on special teams. Even if Texas can find a suitable replacement there, however, they will need to improve their field goal kicking. The Longhorns only made 61.1 percent of their tries in 2017, but Joshua Rowland will hope to improve as a senior.
There is hope in the return game for Texas, especially considering that senior Kris Boyd comes back in 2018 to bring back kicks. If Texas’ punt return team can make strides this season, the Longhorns could finish much higher on this list.
7. Texas Tech
The Red Raiders rank lower on this list mainly because they had the worst field goal percentage in the conference last season, managing to make only 52.2 percent of their attempts. If senior Clayton Hatfield can come back healthier in 2018, that might boost the performance of this kicking unit.
Of course, both kickoff coverage and punting units were some of the best in the Big 12 in 2017. Punter Dominic Panazzolo was key to that effort and after averaging 41.4 yards per punt last year, should be in the top half of the conference this season.
The primary bright spot for the Jayhawks coming into 2018 is Gabriel Rui, who was arguably the best field goal kicker in the conference last year. Rui connected on 85 percent of his tries, good enough for him to account for 7.4 points per game for the Jayhawks.
Outside of their field goal kicker, however, Kansas’ special teams were a mixed bag. Kickoff and punt coverage were both last in the Big 12 last year, so the Jayhawks will hopefully improve there. Return man Steven Sims Jr. is back, so he will give Kansas an opportunity to move into the top half of the conference in kick and punt return yardage.
9. West Virginia
If the Mountaineers are to make a leap to championship-level play, they could really benefit from taking steps forward in the third phase of the game. Both their punt return and punt teams struggled last season, as did West Virginia’s field goal kicking.
Kickoff returns for the Mountaineers were a bright spot on special teams last season, though, so getting returner Marcus Simms back there should be a real boon for the unit. Evan Staley and Billy Kinney will be back to help West Virginia get better in the kicking and punting departments, respectively. The Mountaineers could play in some close games in 2018, so having those players back could make a serious difference.
10. Iowa State
The Cyclones find themselves on the bottom of this list because Iowa State was average or below average in most special teams categories last season. Punt returner Trever Ryen was the best of all the specialists in 2017, but the senior has since departed, leaving a void there.
Of course, Mike Warren comes back to return kicks in his senior season, so Iowa State might be better there in 2018. The rest of this group, however, will hope that the tutelage of new special teams coordinator Joe Houston will yield big dividends. The Cyclones suffered some of the worst attrition in their specialists, so Houston will have some work ahead of him.