Being a former kicker (as well as tackling dummy and terrible linebacker), I have a soft side for the specialists. The guys who jog around while the rest of the team run suicides and perform Oklahoma drills. The guys who can be a hero or a villain with one swing of their leg.
Recently, KU had very dependable specialists in Scott Webb and Kyle Tucker. However, the past couple seasons kicking has been anything but dependable for Kansas. Place kicker Jacob Branstetter could tackle... unfortunately he wasn't too great at the whole kicking thing. Branny connected on a dreadful 8 of 14 field goals last season, including 2 for 8 on kicks 40 yards or longer. Ouch. Alonso Rojas, once considered one of the best punters in the league, regressed a bit last year with KU's new failure of a punt formation. Rojas averaged 42 yards a kick, but had three that were blocked.
Special teams can make or break a team, just ask Virginia Tech. While I don't expect KU to find an Alex Henery of Nebraska clone, getting a guy who can make more than 57% of his field goals would be a nice start. And the blocked kicks need to be eliminated, because I'm tired of getting yelled at for breaking things in the house.
Alex Mueller - 5'10, 155 - Freshman
Despite being a true freshman, I'd expect Mueller to win KU's kicking job. He was the nation's fifth rated kicker coming out of high school (according to rivals), and was a big get for Gill and his staff. Interestingly, USC has the second and fourth rated high school kickers joining their team. I wonder what they will have to do to battle for a spot. Hit moving targets? See who can play golf the best by kicking a football rather than swinging the wrenches? See who can most accurately kick a football?
Despite being from Texas, Mueller described KU as his dream school. I like this kid already. In high school he showed accuracy as well as the ability to hit some long ones, so he should be a welcome upgrade.
Ron Doherty - 5'11, 206 - Sophomore (13)
Ron saw some action as a kickoff specialist last season, splitting the job with starting place kicker Jacob Branstetter. Out of his 21 kickoffs, he had three touchbacks.
Doherty never got a shot at field goals last season, which may be a bad sign. Given Branstetter's struggles and the fact that he was a senior (and KU was often getting blown out), I would have expected Doherty to get a crack at some field goals if he was capable. This season, he could be the sole kickoff guy, especially if the staff wants to keep Mueller's leg fresh for field goals.
Nathan Kalish - 5'11, 169 - Sophomore (12)
Nathan did not see any action last year as KU's backup kicker. Probably not the best sign due to a senior, Jacob Branstetter, struggling. Mueller has to be the favorite to start, but it is always good to have a backup in case of an injury. Plus Kalish had good high school stats. Perhaps he can push Mueller and win the starting spot. Nathan had three successful onside kicks in high school, always a valuable skill for a placekicker.
Victor McBride - 6'2, 201 - RS Freshman (19)
Victor redshirted his first year at KU, and now takes the punter reigns after the graduation of Alonso Rojas. Victor is a big guy, and has been described as being pretty athletic for a punter (which could help if KU tries a fake punt or two). He was already approaching five seconds of hang time on his boots in high school, so he likely has the pedigree to be pretty solid.
According to the high school scouting reports on Victor, he has a very strong leg but struggled at times with his drops and technique. Hopefully a year of redshirting has helped him sharpen these areas up and will allow him to maximize his strong leg.
Justin Carnes - 6'3, 230 - Sophomore (54)
Justin served as the team's long snapper in all twelve games last season. Every team needs a consistent guy to long snap (just ask our own Warden11, who was a prodigy at long snapper back in his playing days), and hopefully Justin keeps progressing in his second season as the man.
Five Questions Entering Spring Practice
1) Who handles kickoffs? Mueller is the placekicker of the future; however the only knock on the highly-touted freshman was that he wasn't lights out on kickoffs. Doherty handled half of the kickoffs last year; does he win the job outright this year?
2) Is McBride ready for the bright lights? He seems to have the leg and some athleticism, but you never know how a guy will react to 40,000 (or more on the road) people watching him.
3) Tricky Biz? Apart from a delicious fake punt against Texas A&M in 2006 (which ended up being responsible for half the team's yards that day) KU has not had a lot of success with fakes. Do we try it more or less this season?
4) Formations. The punt formation didn't work last year. Has it been addressed?
5) Does the staff trust Doherty or Kalish? You would have thought one of these guys, especially Kalish, would have gotten a shot last year with Branstetter's struggles. Plus, you would be giving a guy some valuable PT compared to a struggling senior on his way out.
Two new faces at kicker and punter, and kicker will no doubt be an upgrade. It will be interesting to see what happens with kickoffs, and how McBride takes to being the man. No reason to sugar coat it, special teams were absolutely terrible last year. If KU wants to turn it around and start competing week in and week out, more consistency is needed here. I have a feeling that is what we will get next season (finally).