20 on '20: Wisconsin's Special Teams

Jake Kocorowski

With the news of Wisconsin football student-athletes planning to kickoff "voluntary athletics activities" by June 15 unveiled on Monday -- AllBadgers.com wanted to begin a series dedicated to the program entering a 2020 season that is supposed to start on Sept. 4 against Indiana.

I had some questions here. Do we highlight breakout or "most important" players according to a specific set of standards? Perhaps we look at the biggest concerns with a team returning many starters and contributors but has specific questions needing to be answered at key positions?

In that light, AllBadgers.com presents its "20 on '20" series where we dissect (you guessed it) 20 topics pertaining to the football program. For those needing to catch up, here is the series:

Topic No. 2 of 20: Wisconsin's Special Teams

On Monday, AllBadgers.com looked at the deepest position groups in the football program, and we felt the defensive backfield, Inoke Breckterfield's line and the fullbacks were loaded in that regard.

One group of players that will need to replace some key parts is Chris Haering's special teams unit. Gone are Zach Hintze, Anthony Lotti and Connor Allen. All three played vital roles for Wisconsin in recent memory. For that matter, a game-changing kickoff returner in Aron Cruickshank left the team and transferred to Rutgers.

The one constant with this group is long snapper Adam Bay, who has played in 41 consecutive games since arriving in Madison. Allen told AllBadgers.com last month that the rising senior has assumed leadership of the group.

Looking at Hintze's contributions, he drilled 69 of his 89 kickoffs for touchbacks, which equates to an astounding 77.5% of the time Wisconsin's opponents started on their own 25-yard line. He also showed his leg in field goals, going two for three last season that included his school-record 62-yarder against Purdue in November. 

UW's Rose Bowl game notes showed Collin Larsh being the backup kickoff specialist. If summer camp practices are open to reporters, just how he, Joe Stoll or Jack Van Dyke potentially look in that role will be something to keep tabs on.

Just how the field goal and extra point competition shapes up with be intriguing as well. Larsh received the majority of the field goal opportunities last season and is now the veteran of that particular position. He hit on 12 of 18 attempts, with his long being from 44 yards. It should be noted that three of his misses came from 47 yards or longer, and he also converted 53 of 54 extra point attempts. Will someone push him there?

The team will also need to find a new punter with Lotti and Allen exhausting their eligibility. There is walk-on Conor Schlichting, and Allen told AllBadgers.com that he believes the redshirt junior will take on that holding duties.

"I've been kind of coaching him over the last year or two, working with him on holding, and he's definitely a good holder for sure," Allen said of Schlichting. "He'll have no problem with that. He'll be all good there.

"Between him, Bay and whoever's kicking, they just have to find that trust with each other that we had before where you know everything's going to be where it needs to be, when it needs to be, to make everybody else successful. So they'll be good."

Along with Schlichting, there could be another punter available in Division III transfer Andy Vujnovich. As of March when asked about the specialist's eligibility and if he is able to play right away, head coach Paul Chryst believed that they were still working through that process. 

"Both of them have huge legs, so it's going to be kind of who's more consistent and who the coaches trust the most," Allen said last month. "Especially for our specialists this year, it's unfortunate that we don't have spring ball because it's such a good time to get those really meaningful reps in with the new guys and the younger guys as well, trying to prove what they can do.

"So especially when you have three guys that played a lot that are leaving that next year, it's you got to be able to replace that and find the groove with the new guys that are gonna be filling those positions. So it'll be interesting to see what happens."

In-state punter Gavin Meyers also announced his commitment to Wisconsin earlier this year.

Now what about the returners? 

For punt return, there is experience coming back for 2020. Two players on last year's Rose Bowl depth chart at the position -- Jack Dunn and Danny Davis -- will be seniors. The former improved his average to 8.3 yards per return on 24 attempts in 2019. 

However, other potential candidates from years' past are gone. Cruickshank now is in Piscataway as a member of the Scarlet Knights, and it was confirmed that Cade Green, -- who at times was also seen fielding punts during camps when he was healthy -- was "pursuing medical non-counter status." A UW official noted that Green was still a part of the program but "would not be an active player on the roster."

At kickoff return, Cruickshank emerged to be a dynamic playmaker, and his presence could be sorely missed. He finished fifth in the nation in yards per return (29.3) and tied for second in touchdowns (two). 

With him gone, cornerback Faion Hicks was the second-team returner on the depth chart. I also have seen wide receiver Kendric Pryor also field kickoffs during fall camp as well.

Could anyone else develop in that role? AllBadgers.com asked Quintez Cephus in late April who he feels will step up going forward in the receiver room, especially in terms of some of the younger or more of the unproven players in that room. The current Detroit Lion noted the four Badger seniors (Davis, Pryor, Dunn, Adam Krumholz), but he also mentioned a redshirt freshman Stephan Bracey and the potential in the return game.

"He's a fast guy," Cephus said about Bracey. "He can return punts, return kicks, and he'll be able to do some of those things that they won't have in ‘AC’ (Aron Cruickshank) that he brought to us last year.”