As spring practice grows near, we’re ranking position groups in the Big 12. Last week, it was the offensive units; this week, we assessed the defenses. These evaluations are based on performance, potential and quality of depth. Expect our outlooks to change after the spring.
The series continues with special teams.
1. Kansas State: The Wildcats are never bad in the kicking game. This year, though, they appear set to field a scary group of specialists, from punter Nick Walsh and All-Big 12 kicker Matthew McCrane, both seniors, to Byron Pringle, D.J. Reed and Dominique Heath on returns. Pringle is especially dangerous. And K-State fared well in covering kicks, too, ranking among the top 25 nationally in opponent yards per kickoff and punt return.
2. Oklahoma State: Let’s start with Zach Sinor, who led the FBS with 35 of his 56 punts downed inside the 20-yard line. As a result, the Cowboys ranked second nationally in net punting. OSU must replace second-team All-Big 12 kicker Ben Grogan and Barry J. Sanders on returns, but Jalen McCleskey is back and posing s a threat.
3. TCU: Despite the absence for much of the season of KaVontae Turpin, the Horned Frogs managed to fare well in the return game. They were also strong in kick coverage last season, and punter Adam Nunez performed well. TCU needs more consistency from place-kickers Brandon Hatfield and Ryan Graf.
4. Iowa State: Why can’t Cole Netten come back? He left as the Cyclones’ all-time leading scorer and responded to his critics in all-time great fashion. Kene Nwangwu and Trever Ryen return after leading the Big 12 in kickoff- and punt-return yards, respectively. And punter Colin Downing is back after a strong season. All-Big 12 receiver Allen Lazard can return punts, too, though he has yet to get comfortable in the role.
5. Baylor: Attention to detail on special teams often slips through the cracks in a coaching transition, but there’s hope for the Bears as most of the key pieces return, including Tony Nicholson, who averaged more than 10 yards per punt return and took a pair to the house that were called back because of penalties. Punter Drew Galitz looks set to build on a strong sophomore season. The place-kicking job is up for grabs.
6. Texas: See the warning above with Baylor, though Texas returns one of the best special teams players in the country in punter Michael Dickson, a Ray Guy Award finalist who boomed 25 kicks (out of 65) 50 or more yards and had 28 downed inside the 20-yard line. Kicker Trent Domingue is gone, as is top returner Jacorey Warrick. But Armanti Foreman and Devin Duvernay are well equipped to provide a spark.
7. Oklahoma: The Sooners are flush with athletes, but the task is great to replace Joe Mixon and Dede Westbrook as return specialists. Oklahoma returns Austin Seibert, who handled place-kicking and punting as a sophomore. But he missed five field goals last year, and the OU punt game was middle of the pack in the Big 12.
8. West Virginia: Place-kicker Mike Molina and punter Billy Kinney posted decent numbers in 2016. They’re both back. Still, the outlook is murky in the kicking game. Why? The Mountaineers rarely mounted momentum in this area last year. In net punting, yards per punt return and yards allowed per kickoff return, they ranked no higher than 90th nationally. WVU loses Shelton Gibson on kickoff returns. Only Gary Jennings comes back with experience in the return game.
9. Texas Tech: The Red Raiders bring back kicker Clayton Hatfield, who missed just one of 14 field goals in 2016, and punter Michael Barden. Cameron Batson is back, too, to return punts, and Keke Coutee could help fill a vacancy on kickoff returns left by Reginald Davis. The problem is, Tech performed poorly in coverage a year ago; Barden struggled with consistency; and the returns weren’t productive either.
10. Kansas: No team was worse than Kansas last season at returning punts. And while one player can't fix that, Alabama transfer Daylon Charlot did return a punt 54 yards for a touchdown in the 2015 Under Armour All-America Game. LaQuvionte Gonzalez is back to return kickoffs. Place-kicker Matthew Wyman and punter Cole Moos return, too, so there’s hope for improvement.