|« Southland Conference Refreshes Branding Marks||TTU gives Wilson a five-year contract extension »|
2012 Big Sky position rankings: Special teams
These guys don’t get a whole lot of credit but still play a huge role in the outcome of football games.
A new era of football in the Big Sky Conference begins this fall as the league welcomes four new teams to the fold. The additions of UC Davis, Cal Poly, North Dakota and Southern Utah brings depth to the league – and a large number of established players ready to make their mark on a bigger, brighter stage.
And so, we are again compiling our lists of the Top 10 players in the Big Sky at each position in advance of the 2012 season. In past years, our opinions in this venture have been greeted with mixed reaction. Some of you have agreed with us, others haven’t. That’s what these rankings are all about. But there’s no debating the fact that a bigger league means more talent and a more diverse pool of players to consider.
We’re working backwards this year (for fairly obvious reasons) – starting with our list of special teams players. In a way it’s fitting, because these guys don’t get a whole lot of credit but still play a huge role in the outcome of football games. So they get the limelight first.
Much of Portland State’s resurgence last year was due to vastly improved special teams (and you’ll see why below). But the Vikings are just one of several teams represented here. So check out our Top 10 Big Sky Conference special teams players for 2012, ranked in terms of effectiveness:
TOP 10 SPECIAL TEAMERS FOR 2012
1. ZACH BROWN, PK, SR., PORTLAND STATE 2011: 24-27 FG, 53 long, 27-29 PAT, 101 pts. THE BUZZ FOR 2012: The accolades rolled in for Zach Brown after his stellar junior season, including first-team All-America nods from the AP, the AFCA, The Sports Network, and Walter Camp and CSN. Brown’s booming leg – he’s made 11 career field goals of 50 yards or longer – makes him the ultimate special teams weapon and one of the very best kickers in country. Brown also helped the Vikings recover two onside kicks. He’ll be great again this year. And don’t be surprised if you see him kicking on Sundays.
2. DOMINIC GUNN, RET, SR., NORTHERN COLORADO 2011: 724 KR yds, 25.9 avg, 1 TD, 94 long. THE BUZZ FOR 2012: Simply put, Gunn is the most dangerous kickoff return man in the Big Sky. He got plenty of return opportunities last year because UNC gave up 43 touchdowns, but Gunn constantly sets the Bears up with solid field position. Gunn is already the career record-holder for kickoff return yards in UNC history. Your coverage team better be finely tuned when you play the Bears. Otherwise, your best bet it to just kick it out of the end zone or somewhere else altogether.
3. NEVIN LEWIS, ST/RET, SR. PORTLAND STATE 2011: 686 KR yds, 23.7 avg, 3 blocked punts. THE BUZZ FOR 2012: Despite Zach Brown’s contributions, Lewis still took home the Vikings’ special teams player of the year honor, and you won’t find a more all-around force. Lewis had the fourth-most kick return yards in a season in Vikings history, and his 1,117 career KR yards rank fourth all-time. He is the leader of a special teams unit that blocked seven punts (three by Lewis) and two field goals, and even preserved a win over NAU with a blocked field goal in the waning seconds.
4. PETER NGUYEN, RET, SR., MONTANA 2011: 285 KR yds, 23.8 avg, 49 long, 48 PR yds, 9.6 avg. THE BUZZ FOR 2012: With Jabin Sambrano heading to camp with the Indianapolis Colts, Nguyen’s impact in the return game will be further magnified this year at Montana. The knock on Nguyen is that he doesn’t protect the ball as well as he should, and he’s battled some fumblitis in the past. But few run as hard as 5-foot-8 Nguyen, and if he sees a crease, he can be gone in an instant. Prediction: Nguyen takes at least one kickoff back for a touchdown this year.
5. TREVOR PLETCHER, ST, SR., WEBER STATE 2011: 2 blocked punts. THE BUZZ FOR 2012: We all know about Pletcher’s prowess at defensive end – he’s one of the best in the league. But Pletcher is also a pain in the butt for opposing special teams units, as evidenced by his pair of blocks last season. Pletcher knows how to get to the quarterback, and he also knows how to break through the line and cause havoc for kickers and punters. It’s the reason why he earned honorable mention All-Conference accolades on special teams last season. Expect more of the same.
6. SHAWN JOHNSON, KR/PR, SO., MONTANA STATE 2011: 352 KR yds, 19.6 avg, 35 long, 125 PR yds, 6.9 avg. THE BUZZ FOR 2012: Thrown to the fire as a true freshman, Johnson performed like a veteran last season. Johnson made his biggest impression as a punt returner, running two punts for TDs that were ultimately wiped out due to penalties. With Everett Gilbert still a key member on special teams, the Bobcats have a pair of big-play guys to rely on. Johnson has a ton of upside as a running back, but he’s held back by enormous depth at that position. Still, this is could be a big year for Johnson returning kicks.
7. COLTON SCHMIDT, P, SR., UC DAVIS 2011: 61 punts, 42.3 avg, 64 long, 19 inside 20, 13 50-plus. THE BUZZ FOR 2012: He got a workout last year as one of just a handful of punters in the FCS to reach the 60-punt plateau. But that made Schmidt’s 42.3-yard average (which ranked 11th in the nation) that much more meaningful. He improved his average by nearly five yards from 2010. If that trend continues, Schmidt will unequivocally be one of the best and most effective special teams players in the Big Sky.
8. ZEB MILLER, PK, JR., NORTH DAKOTA 2011: 15-19 FG, 54 long, 31-32 PAT, 76 pts. THE BUZZ FOR 2012: Miller has had his ups and downs in two years as the Sioux’s placekicker, but he’s certainly shown flashes, especially his career-long 54-yarder that beat Northern Colorado in the final seconds last year. Additionally, Miller has made 62 of 63 extra point attempts in two seasons, which is a higher percentage than that of Portland State’s Zach Brown, one of the best in the nation. Miller will only get better going forward.
9. TRAY ROBINSON, ST, SR., MONTANA STATE 2011: 5 ST tackles. THE BUZZ FOR 2012: Robinson is much more recognizable as a member of Montana State’s stout running game, having rushed for 641 yards and 5 TDs last year. But the former Nebraska transfer is also a stud in coverage and as an up-man on special teams, so much so that he earned MSU’s Jan Stenerud special teams player of the year award. That was a big honor, considering star kicker Jason Cunningham had such a solid season. A special teams captain, Robinson flies under the radar at times but his impact cannot be understated.
10. THOMAS DUYNDAM, P, SR., PORTLAND STATE 2011: 43 punts, 39.0 avg, 60 long, 7 inside 20, 4 50-plus. THE BUZZ FOR 2012: His numbers from last year seem a bit pedestrian, but the Australian-born Duyndam perfected the “roll punt” while limiting teams to only 12 returns. He doesn’t have a booming leg, but there’s something to be said for accuracy, and Duyndam is as good as they come in that department. He’ll try to earn his third straight all-conference nod this season.
By Greg Rachac, Billings Gazette