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Michigan State Spartans Football 2015 Position Preview: Specialists

Joe takes a look at Special Teams

Sarah Glenn/Getty Images

Key Losses

Punter Mike Sadler controversially ends his Spartan career without a Heisman trophy, despite an 18.0 yards per carry average over his career. Sadler is also going to be missed for his terrific Twitter presence, though it's appropriate he exits the Big Ten at the same time as Bo (Faux) Pelini.

More seriously, Sadler was an incredibly reliable contributor as a punter and a holder and will be sorely missed on the field as well as off of it. Though his punting average dipped his senior year, Sadler was steady and easy to overlook. These are good qualities in a punter.

It's... just going to be weird seeing someone other than Aaron Bates or Mike Sadler punt the ball for Michigan State. Both guys were awesome, and it feels like an end to an era. Mark Dantonio has had just two punters during his tenure at MSU. You'll be missed, Saddlebags.

Returner Nick Hill didn't field many kicks or punts over the last two years but he was solid (if unspectacular) in 2011 and 2012 as a return man. His graduation mostly signals a loss of depth, but perhaps more potential out of the return game.

Top Returnees

Junior Kicker Michael Geiger is a curious case because his 2013 and 2014 years were so different. The good news for Geiger is that his (relative) inaccuracy in 2014 didn't cost MSU any games. I'm guessing that Geiger's true talent level falls somewhere in-between his 2013 and 2014 outputs. He's a solid kicker with a strong leg, but can struggle with accuracy at times. Will I trust him at the end of games when he's the deciding factor? I honestly have no idea. On the MSU kicker scale, he's between Conroy and Brett Swenson.

Here's my quick MSU kicker theory: MSU has gotten too good at recruiting kickers. The guys who have been kicked post-Swenson (read: Dan Conroy and Michael Geiger) have huge legs but are not particularly consistent. This makes sense, as leg strength is a scarce resource in the recruiting world.

The other problem is that leg strength introduces selection bias. Meaning that, because Conroy and Geiger have the leg strength to kick long field goals, MSU is more likely to attempt them. I think Dantonio & company have gotten better at going for it on manageable fourth downs, but this still makes the more recent kickers look worse than they probably are.

Senior Returner Macgarrett Kings is presumably with the team after his charges were reduced. I've been unimpressed with Kings as a punt return man. He's neither particularly reliable nor a home-run threat. He averaged 10.3 yards per return in 2013 and dropped to 6.1 yards per return in 2014. For reference, Keshawn Martin averaged 14.2 yards per return his Junior year.

When I was an undergrad, I used to refer to any punt return as "Adventures in Punt Returns with Keshawn Martin" as though he were hosting his own show. You didn't know what was going to happen; just that it was going to be exciting.

I wanted to transition this to "Adventures in Punt Returns with Macgarrett Kings" but he's disappointed me. Kings has, however, begun to do a better job of just catching the damn ball. Which is mostly all I'm hoping for when I'm watching the game.

Junior Returner R.J. Shelton was better as a return man than I remember. Did you realize he was named second-team All-Big Ten kick returner by Athlon Sports and Phil Steele? He bumped his kick return averages up four yards per return in 2014 from 2013. I'm intrigued by his ability and he could be a major weapon next year.

Might we have a new host for "Adventures in Punt Returns" ?

Senior Long Snapper Taybor Pepper created some controversy when he accepted a scholarship offer as a long snapper, but he's proven to absolutely be worth that schollie. It's his final year, though, and tight end Matt Sokol is the backup. Still, Pepper is an asset.

Junior Kickoff Specialist Kevin Cronin was top-ten in the nation in terms of kickoff average at 63.4 yards per kickoff. I'm not going to lie, I had no idea Cronin was that good before writing this article. We're spoiled as MSU fans. Anyways, this is another area to basically continue to ignore because Cronin's got it locked down.

New Faces

Freshman Punter Jake Hartbarger was highly recruited guy, as in consensus top-five for his position (if not top-three). After a year of redshirting, he's the new point man for trick plays and pinning opponents deep. The fact that he's so highly recruited bodes well, since we really don't know much else about him. He's got some figuratively big shoes to fill.

Junior Holder Matt Macksood steps into the Brad Sonntag Memorial walk-on-receiver-as-holder guy. I hope he does something as awesome as this:

The Upshot

Despite the loss of Mike Sadler I believe this has the potential to be an improved position group in 2015. Hartbarger has real potential and all of the other groups remain unchanged, just adding a year of experience. This likely means improvements in the return game(s) and the kicking game. This should be an area of strength for the Spartans this coming year, provided Hartbarger is at least serviceable.