Back in the recent dark times of Michigan State football, a lot of the team units were mediocre compared to their Big Ten counterparts. However, one aspect of Spartan football was almost always very good to great: the special teams. This year is no exception, as the Spartans have an All-Big Ten caliber punter and kicker. The biggest this season will be who will be returning kickoffs and punts. Let's take a look at the MSU special teams in the first part of our preview of Michigan State football for 2014.
Mike Sadler - Senior, 6'0", 175 lbs.
3.97 Student in Applied Engineering. Heisman candidate. Fashion icon. For the past three years Mike Sadler has upheld the high standard of MSU punters such as Brandon Fields, who you may recall from the Eddleman-Fields Punter of the Year trophy the Big Ten hands out every year.
Seriously though, Sadler played an integral part in the Spartans' defensive dominance last season. If you looked solely at Sadler's yards per punt last season (42.5, fourth in the Big Ten), you may wonder what the big deal is. However, punting isn't about who has the biggest...um...leg, it's about field position, and in that respect there were few punters better in college football than Sadler. He tied for second in the FBS with 33 punts downed inside the 20, and led FBS with 24 punts downed inside the 10. Sadler didn't have the best yards per punt in the Big Ten, mainly because he wasn't bombing the ball into the end zone.
Another aspect of Sadler's game that was crucial last season -- selling the fake. Let's watch him in action:
He even puts his shoulder down at the end to get more yards. That's pure, unadulterated football instinct you're watching.
The backup to Sadler is kicker Michael Geiger (more on him in a bit), but let's hope it doesn't come to that. Sadler's punt placement and athletic ability make him one of the most valuable punters in college football, and it's going to be fun watching him in his last Spartan season. He may not get a spot in the Spartan Stadium Ring of Fame, but another honor would be apt: "The Mike Sadler Institute for Punting and Twitter" would be a great addition to campus and the world.
Michael Geiger - Sophomore, 5'8", 189 lbs.
As a freshman last year Geiger was in a competition with then-senior Kevin Muma for the kicking job. Muma began as the starting kicker, but a miss from 30 yards at Notre Dame led Dantonio to put in Geiger. The Geiger Counter did not disappoint, as he missed only one field goal out of 16 last season (an MSU single-season record for FG efficiency) and was a perfect 8-8 between 40-49 yards. Here's what Dantonio said after the Notre Dame loss*:
Right now he's the kicker. You don't put him in against Notre Dame unless he's the kicker. Took the redshirt off him, he's the kicker.
He's shown great promise throughout summer camp. Obviously wasn't perfect in that, but it's his time now. He needs to grow up quick.
And grow up he did. Geiger reminds me a lot of Brett Swenson: shortish, maybe not the strongest leg in games (although Geiger did kick a 55-yarder in high school to win an Ohio all-star game), and hyper accurate. He was the number one kicking recruit in 2013 for a reason, and Geiger showed it last year.
The backup kicker for MSU, and the kicker who might possibly handle kickoffs this season, is sophomore Kevin Cronin. Not the lead singer for REO Speedwagon mind you, but a kicker from Traverse City whose only action last season was two kickoffs (one for a touchback) against Youngstown State.
Andre Sims Jr. - Junior, 5'9", 190 lbs.
Macgarrett Kings Jr. - Junior, 5'10", 186 lbs.
Darien Harris - Junior, 6'0", 231 lbs.
R.J. Shelton - Sophomore, 5'11", 204 lbs.
Nick Hill - Senior, 5'8", 196 lbs.
Keith Mumphery - Senior, 6'1", 211 lbs.
NOTE: Mark Dantonio has not come out with the depth chart for kick and punt returns this preseason. The above list is based on who returned kicks in the past season and reports out of practice.
Not surprisingly due to their defense, Michigan State fielded many punt returns last season (36 returns, tied for second in FBS), and were decently efficient at returning said punts (9.8 yards per return, 42nd in FBS). With a defense that aims to be just as strong as it was last season, the Spartans will have many opportunities for game-breaking returns again, and wide receivers Andre Sims Jr. and MacGarrett Kings look to be the two main men battling for that spot.
Punt returns require a different skill set than kick returns: straight-ahead speed is valued more on kick returns, and punt returns require, for a lack of a better word "slipperiness" -- making the first couple gunners miss. That's why Sims and Kings are on punts. Kings returned 20 punts for an average of 10.3 yards and a long of 30 yards, and Sims returned 15 punts for an average of 8.6 yards and a long of 33. Kings won the job full-time towards the end of the season, but one would think Sims is waiting in the wings if Kings muffs one punt too many. Linebacker Darien Harris was also mentioned in reports as seeing reps returning punts, but I believe it's Kings's job to lose, with Sims a close second.
The kick return situation last season was similar to the punt return situation; one player had it coming in, another secured the position towards the end of the season. In this case the incumbent was running back Nick Hill, and the usurper was wide receiver R.J. Shelton. Shelton had a higher average (22.1 to Hill's 19.0) and had a better longest kick return (36 for Shelton, 27 for Hill). Take those numbers with a grain of salt though: Shelton only return 9 kicks last season, and Hill only had 5 kick returns.
While Keith Mumphery did not return a kick last season, he was mentioned as seeing reps at fall camp there, and this quote from receivers coach Terry Samuel is intriguing:
"His burst, acceleration, one of the best I’ve ever seen. Sometimes he’s a little erratic controlling that speed. Great speed is one thing, controlling it, that’s another. So that’s where he needs to work."
Once again, if looks like Shelton is firmly entrenched as the guy to return kicks this season, but there's a little more potential of a dark horse here than there is with punt returns.
So once again, the punting and kicking units look to be really good. If the returners take a step up, MSU will have one of the best special teams units in the country.