2019 Wisconsin Rewind: Special Teams
The 2019 college football season has officially passed for the Wisconsin Badgers after falling to the No. 6 Oregon Ducks in the 2020 Rose Bowl Game on Jan. 1.
AllBadgers.com presents a new series, "2019 Wisconsin Rewind," that will break down each UW position group from last season. Positional stats, standout and rough performances will be dissected, and one question will be presented for each room heading into spring ball later this year.
Wisconsin's special teams units showcased an ability to shine and change a game's momentum during the 2019 season. That starts with Aron Cruickshank and the kickoff return team, who ranked third in the nation in yards per attempt (28.37). In individual acclaim, the sophomore finished fifth in the FBS in that category (29.3).
Cruickshank's season was highlighted by two touchdowns against Nebraska and Oregon.
Though not as dynamic of an impact as Cruickshank, the punt return unit improved with redshirt junior Jack Dunn averaging nearly three yards more per attempt than his 2018 campaign.
After Rafael Gaglianone departed, Collin Larsh worked mostly as the first-team placekicker throughout the season. Zach Hintze emerged with a school-record 62-yard field goal in the home finale against Purdue and held duties for the Minnesota game and Big Ten Championship contest against Ohio State. Both combined to make two-thirds of their field goal attempts.
Punter Anthony Lotti appeared to become more consistent in his final season at UW than previous years despite fumbling a snap in each of the final two games of the season.
With graduating players and a key returner in the transfer portal, however, assistant Chris Haering's unit could look very different in 2020.
- Collin Larsh: 12 of 18 field goal attempts, long of 44; 53 of 54 on extra points
- Zach Hintze: Two of three field goal attempts, long of 62 (school record); eight of eight on extra points; 89 kickoffs, 69 touchbacks
- Anthony Lotti: 45 attempts, 39.7 yards per punt; 17 inside the 20, three punts of 50-plus yards
- Aron Cruickshank: 23 returns, 29.3 yards per attempt, two touchdowns; long of 95
- Jack Dunn: 24 returns, 8.3 yards per attempt; long of 41
In this phase of the game overall, the road win at Nebraska stands out instantly. Cruickshank took back an 89-yard return to the house to silence the Memorial Stadium faithful in the first quarter while Larsh connected on all three of his field goal attempts in the road win.
In blustery winter conditions in Minnesota on Nov. 30, Hintze made his only field goal attempt from 26 yards out while booting five of his seven kickoffs for touchbacks. UW also pulled off a kickoff return reverse in the second half where Isaac Guerendo gained 49 yards to give the offense great field position after a Gophers score.
In terms of individual performances, Cruickshank's 95-yard return to the house altered momentum in the first frame of the 2020 Rose Bowl. Hintze's 62-yarder through the upright of the Camp Randall Stadium north end zone against the Boilermakers will likely keep him atop the UW record books for longest field goal for a while.
The Big Ten Championship game stands out in this regard. Hintze missed his only attempt from 48 yards, which by all means is not automatic in the college game. Cruickshank's effectiveness was contained to just 28 yards on two kickoff returns. Lotti averaged 40.2 yards per punt on four attempts, but the senior fumbled a snap in the third quarter. That resulted in a short field and field goal on the subsequent series for the Buckeyes.
Question for 2020: Who takes over in key areas?
Gone will be seniors Hintze, Lotti and holder/backup punter Connor Allen in exhausting their eligibility.
Hintze's leg for kickoffs became a weapon to pin opposing offenses back. Larsh was listed in the two-deep during the season, but it will be worth watching how fellow in-state walk-on Blake Wilcox develops after redshirting in his first season at UW.
For that matter, Larsh will be the only experienced kicker returning for 2020, but will he continue his development next season -- and will others like Wilcox challenge him?
For that matter, who will hold for him? Allen held down those duties since the 2016 season. According to the two-deep, walk-on Conor Schlichting worked as the back-up.
Schlichting is the only designated punter on the roster returning. Junior Andy Vujnovich joins the program from Division III Dubuque, and AllBadgers.com is currently working to confirm with UW when he is eligible to play. Wilcox also punted in high school at Kettle Moraine High School. Will he also find an opportunity at affect several units here?
With Cruickshank now in the transfer portal, a game-changing facet of Wisconsin's special teams will likely have to replace its potent playmaker. Wisconsin listed cornerback Faion Hicks as the No. 2 kickoff returner on its depth chart, but can someone like Guerendo or wide receiver Kendric Pryor also be potential options?