The preseason is drawing to a close just in time to round out position group rankings. We’ve been looking at position groups across the Big 12 and ranking them from best to worst, and the very last units to end this series are the specialists: kickers, punter, and returners.
These rankings, like the rest in this series, weigh proven production more heavily than potential. Many of the teams closer to the top of the list have proven players coming back in their special teams, but those near the bottom could unquestionably move up should an unknown talent rise up.
A caveat should also be given because special teams is frustratingly difficult to project, and quite often certain coaches tend to have squads consistently do well in this phase of the game. And, in case you hadn’t heard, almost half the teams in the Big 12 have new head coaches in 2019.
That makes these rankings a little more of a shot in the dark, but hopefully they provide a window into who is expected to be good on special teams, and who has their work cut out for them.
Of all the teams in this league, Texas enters this fall with the fewest questions in their special teams. The Longhorns are the only team to have players on the watch lists for both the Ray Guy and Lou Groza awards in punter Ryan Bujcevski and kicker Cameron Dicker. Dicker was clutch for Texas at key moments last year, and Bujcevski had a decent performance in averaging 40.3 yards per punt.
D’Shawn Jamison is expected to return kicks and punts this year. Jamison, who gave the Longhorns a critical punt return for a touchdown last season, could lead the Big 12 statistically in that category in 2019.
2. Iowa State
Despite not having elite special teams last year, the Cyclones are positioned to have some of the better specialists in the Big 12. Kicker Connor Assalley is back after making 16 of his 23 field goal attempts on the season. The junior, who nailed a 50 yarder last season, will be relied upon in Iowa State’s closer games.
An Achilles injury to projected starter Corey Dunn made Iowa State’s situation at punter more ambiguous. Joe Rivera, who punted twice last year, is a likely candidate, but also is unknown.
The return game for Iowa State should be strong again this season. They bring back Kene Nwangwu, who led the Big 12 in kick returns last season with 26.8 yards per return. Wideout Tarique Milton is expected to again shoulder the punt return duties, a spot where he was solid for the Cyclones in 2018 with his 12.7 yards per return.
3. Kansas State
One major question facing the Wildcats in the post-Snyder era is how special teams will fare under the Klieman regime. The Kansas State head coach has one of the best kickers in college football in Blake Lynch, who made 87.5 percent of his field goals last year.
Punting duties were split in 2018 between sophomore Andrew Hicks and senior Devin Anctil, each of whom boomed the ball for just under 44 yards per punt. After the transfer of return man Isaiah Zuber to Mississippi State, Kansas State will have to discover some new specialists there.
New coaches can often get the quickest turnaround in special teams, which is no doubt something Les Miles will hope to accomplish in Lawrence. That might not take long – punter Kyle Thompson averaged 43.3 yards per punt a year ago, and may end up being the best punter in the conference. Still, the Jayhawks will need to identify a new placekicker.
There’s also promise in the return game, where both returners are back. Kwamie Lassiter II averaged only 5.6 yards per return last season, so there’s room for improvement. With the dynamic Pooka Williams back to return kicks, though, some big plays may be in Kansas’ near future.
Expect the Sooners to have reliable special teams again this year, despite losses in the kicking game. Following the exit of Austin Seibert, the Sooners are on the lookout for a new punter and placekicker. Gabe Brkic got a touch of experience in kicking a PAT, but other than that, the remaining candidates are untested.
CeeDee Lamb and Tre Brown were two of the top returners in the Big 12 last season, and both are expected to resume those duties in 2019. Both should also end up near the top of the conference if they duplicate their 2018 performances.
6. Oklahoma State
Enough solid experience abounds among the specialists for Oklahoma State to make them reliable. Matt Ammendola was 16 of 22 on field goals in 2018, and he should be an asset for the Pokes yet again this year. Punter was a strength for Oklahoma State last year, but they’ll be searching for a replacement after losing a starter there.
Where the Cowboys do have experience, however, is in their return game. Dillon Stoner will be on hand to field punts again, but he can hopefully improve on 5.6 yards per return. Chuba Hubbard, on the other hand, proved to be a substantial threat as a kick returner, and should be in the top half of the conference if he holds down that post again.
7. West Virginia
Neal Brown might have inherited the best placekicker in the Big 12 in Evan Staley. Staley found himself on the watch list for the Lou Groza award after making 80 percent of his field goals in 2018. The Mountaineers will need a new punter, a job that Staley could end up filling in as well.
Returners will also need to be found for next season. Wideout Tevin Bush brought back a few kicks last season, so he’s the most likely candidate there.
Special teams has always been a priority for Gary Patterson, but the kicking game was a bit of a mixed bag for TCU last season. Jonathan Song split kicking duties last year, but his overall percentage was strong. The Horned Frogs struggled in the punting department. Having to put a new face out there might not be a bad thing in 2019.
Full time punt and kick returners will also have to be found this season, but Jalen Reagor could be a top name in the conference if he solidifies the spot bringing back punts.
Fielding truly elite special teams can be elusive for some FBS teams, and Baylor will likely hope to develop their specialists into the fall. Connor Martin cleared just under two-thirds of his kicks last season, a number that could be improved upon in 2019. Isaac Power, a redshirt freshman, is the most likely starting punter despite attempting only one punt last year.
The Bears didn’t have a consistent punt returner last season, and this year could see a similar rotation, although Christian Morgan had the best average at 15.5 yards per return. Sophomore Josh Fleeks returned kicks in 2018, and should prove to be passable again this season.
10. Texas Tech
Last season, the Red Raiders ended up having some of the best special teams in the conference, but Texas Tech comes in at the bottom of this list mostly because of their loses from 2018.
Matt Wells enters this fall with questions throughout his specialists. Both kicker and punter need to be replaced. Punter Austin McNamara was a highly rated member of the 2019 class, so he could be part of the solution there. The return game also will need someone to emerge after departures there. Without a lot of returning experience at the collegiate level, Texas Tech will hope that a standout emerges there this season.