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Position Breakdown: Special Teams

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A slew of new faces will try and improve a unit that struggled for most of last season.

NCAA Football: Big Ten Championship-Iowa vs Michigan State Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Each and every Friday I will take a look at the special teams matchup for Saturday’s game and see which unit holds the advantage. As this is the first week of the year, we will also break down the MSU unit coming into the season, a group which features a lot of new names at the specialty positions.

Place Kicking

After four years of Michael Geiger, the Spartans will have themselves a new place kicker attempting field goals this year. The competition was wide open coming into camp, with three new faces having a chance to take over the position. It’s a spot that once you grab hold of it, you get to keep it as long as you perform.

The first depth chart lists Matt Coghlin OR Brett Scanlon as the place kicker, but Mark Dantonio indicated during his press conference this week that Coghlin had won the job out of camp.

Coghlin is a redshirt freshman out of Cincinnati who was ranked among the top ten kickers in his class by both Scout and 247 Sports.

A new kicker is always a relative unknown, but Michigan State has always had a solid kicking game under Mark Dantonio. From Brett Swenson to Dan Conroy to Michael Geiger, the place kicking has been pretty reliable the past decade. Coghlin will be the next to step into that role.

If Coghlin does falter, senior transfer Brett Scanlon and freshman Cole Hahn are waiting in the wings for their shot at the job.

Bowling Green:

The Falcons have a slightly more seasoned place kicker to start the year as redshirt junior Jake Suder will be in his second season as the Bowling Green kicker. Last year Suder was very solid making 9 of 12 field goals (long of 44 yards) and 35 of 38 extra points.

Punting

The one spot on special teams that does feature a returner for Michigan State is at punter. Jake Hartbarger is back for his junior season and should provide some stability to the MSU special teams overall.

Last year Hartbarger averaged 40.94 yards per punt, while dropping 20 of 54 punts inside the 20 yard line, and 11 of those inside the ten.

If Hartbarger can consistently bang out some 45-50 yard punts when he needs to, while also being able to drop them inside the 20 and 10 yard lines when the situation presents itself, he will be a very important part of MSU’s success. Field position was an area the Spartans lost consistently last year, and while we all expect the offense to be better, they will have their struggles. Hartbarger being able to bail them out when need will help a lot. He has always had the ability, but the consistency hasn’t always been there with Jake. Hopefully as a junior, he will find that consistency.

Bowling Green:

Redshirt senior Joseph Davidson enters his fourth year as the Bowling Green punter, and he’s been a great one. He was first-team all-MAC the last two years and was named fourth-team All-American by Phil Steele last year, as well as being a semi-finalist for the Ray Guy award. He averaged over 45 yards per kick each of the last two seasons, and ranked second in the country in net punting average last year.

Davidson is a good one, and is a weapon in the field position game. He dropped 21 punts inside the 20 yard line with only three touchbacks a year ago while also booming 19 punts of 50+ yards.

Return Game

Another area with a new face for Michigan State as sophomore Darrell Stewart Jr. will take over as both the lead kick-off and punt returner. Stewart had five kick-off returns last year, averaging 21.4 yards and will be replacing R.J. Shelton, who handled most of the kickoff returns the last few years.

Stewart did not return a punt last season, as Brandon Sowards got the bulk of the work. But Sowards tore his ACL in camp and is out of the season. It also sounds like Stewart may have won the job outright before the injury. The Spartans were 81st the country last year in punt returns, so there is plenty of room for improvement. Stewart is a big time athlete and was an explosive returner as a senior in high school. Hopefully he can provide a spark to a Spartan return game that has lacked in the past couple years.

Bowling Green:

The Falcons will go with freshman wideout Matt Wilcox as their primary returner to start the season. Wilcox is a three-star recruit out of Huber Heights, Ohio and was a prolific wide receiver in high school.

Bowling Green was 106th in the country in punt returns last year, averaging just 4.95 yards per return. They were even worse on kick-offs ranking 122nd nationally at 17.38 yards per return. Obviously they are hoping the freshman can give them more than what they got last year.

Kick-offs

The Spartans will also have a new kick-off specialist this year with Kevin Cronin graduating. Brett Scanlon, a senior transfer from Western Michigan, will take over that role to start the season.

At Western as a freshman and sophomore Scanlon averaged around 60 yards per kick-off. In his sophomore season he had 25 touchbacks out of 77 kick-offs.

This is another area where MSU would like to see some improvement from last year. Cronin averaged 59.24 yards per kick-off last year, which ranked MSU at 101st nationally. His 23 touchbacks were good for 76th in the country, and the touchback percentage of 37.1% was ranked 62nd overall. But the killer was the six kicks that went out of bounds, the fourth most in the country.

Scanlon will hope to improve on all those numbers. The Spartans other kicker, freshman Cole Hahn, is supposed to have a “big leg” so he could be in line to take over if the senior struggles.

Bowling Green:

Nick Fields will handle the kick-offs for Bowling Green. He served as the kick-off specialist last year and averaged 53.30 yards per kick with 15 touchbacks. That average was last in the FBS and the touchbacks were only slightly better (91st).

The good news for the Falcons is that despite having the shortest kick-off average last year, they also had the best kick coverage. Bowling Green led the country in kick-off return average against at just 15.05 yards per return.