August 29, 2007

Season preview: Special teams and coaching

In this third of a four-part 2007 season preview, WildcatReport breaks down special teams and coaching.

Position: Special Teams

Starters: PK Amado Villarreal, P Stefan Demos, KR Sherrick McManis, PR Brendan Smith/Rasheed Ward

Key player: McManis. With the tee on kickoffs being moved five yards back, to the 30-yard line, McManis will have a bigger impact on the game.

Reason for optimism: Teams will get many more chances to return kicks this season, and more touches for a potential gamebreaker like McManis increases the odds of a big play for NU. The kicking and punting can only go up from last season, when the Cats finished 8th in the Big Ten in field goals and 10th in punting. Demos has a big leg and should be a substantial improvement in the punting and kickoff departments. He'll have a chance to earn vital yards in field position for the Cats, and fans may have seen the last of the pooch kicks and punts that Northwestern has been forced to use the last few years. Villarreal has shown flashes as a kicker but needs to develop consistency, and that can only come with experience and opportunities . On kick coverage, look for coach Pat Fitzgerald to use more starters and key reserves to bolster the units. The Cats have picked up a lot of players that can run over the last couple of recruiting classes with special teams in mind.

Cause for concern: Experience, or rather the lack thereof, in the kicking game. Demos has yet to kick in a college game and Villarreal has one career field goal and one PAT to his credit. Theoretically, they should both be upgrades, but the gap between theory and practice can be wide.

The bottom line: A former special teams coordinator, Fitzgerald prides himself on special teams and wants nothing more than to change a team weakness to a strength. The first steps of that transformation will come this year, but special teams remains the weakest of the three phases of the game for Northwestern.

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