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Special Teams Breakdown: Western Michigan

The Broncos have a dangerous return man and a JUCO transfer at kicker.

NCAA Football: Alabama at Mississippi State Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

Most of the focus after Michigan State’s opening season win was on the underwhelming performance of the offense. There was also a good amount of discussion about the Spartans dominating defensive performance as well. What got lost in the shuffle, was that the special teams was also excellent.

Two out of the three phases of the game performed very well for Michigan State, and that is a great sign moving forwards. If that remains the case, the offense should have some time to figure things out.

Week two brings Western Michigan to town, so let’s see how they match up.

Place Kicking

Matt Coghlin was a perfect 4-for-4 in field goals and 2-for-2 on extra points in the season opener against Tulsa. He connected from 38, 47, 44, and 40 yards, with a little help from the upright on the 47-yarder.

The four made field goals moved Coghlin into tenth place on the all-time MSU field goal list. He remains the most accurate kicker in Spartan history having made over 82% of his field goals and all of his extra points.

Western Michigan

The Broncos have a JUCO transfer from Brazil as their place kicker this season. Thiago Kapps was 2-for-2 on field goals and 6-for-6 on extra points in his debut, including a 45-yard make.

Kapps competed at the 2018 Kohl’s kicking camp after spending two seasons kicking for the College of Dupage where he averaged over 70 yards per kickoff, which would indicate he’s got a pretty decent leg.


Welcome back Jake Hartbarger. The sixth-year senior picked up right where he left off before his injury, booting five punts for an average of 47.40 yards. He had a 61 yarder out of his own endzone to flip field position, and a 57 yarder late in the game.

Hartbarger also dropped three punts inside the Tulsa 20-yard line, and one of them inside the ten.

With his performance, Hartbarger improved his career punting average to 42.3 yards per punt, which puts him at sixth best in MSU history, just ahead of Mike Sadler at 42.2 yards per punt.

Western Michigan

The Broncos did not punt in their opener against Monmouth. Their punter is Nick Mihalic, who was a freshman last season and averaged 37.27 yards per punt after coming out of high school as the number one rated punter in the country by 247 Sports.

Mihalic had eight punts of 50+ yards and dropped 12 of his 56 punts inside the 20-yard line, while also forcing 22 fair catches. His career long punt is 79 yards which came against rival Central Michigan.

Kickoff Returns

Jalen Nailor handled both kickoff return attempts for Michigan State last week, and is listed at the top of the depth chart as the kick returner this week. He averaged 25.50 yards per return, taking one back 28 yards and the other 23 yards.

NCAA Football: Rutgers at Michigan State Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

Nailor adds an explosive element to the kick return game, and I feel like he has a great chance to break one for a touchdown this year.

Western did a pretty good job last week on kick returns, holding Monmouth to just a 17 yard per return average. Last season the Broncos were 30th nationally in kick coverage, allowing 19.07 yards per return, although they did allow a kickoff return touchdown against Miami-Ohio.

Western Michigan

Senior wideout Keith Mixon Jr., a transfer from Mississippi State, handled kick return duties last week against Monmouth and he was pretty explosive. Mixon averaged 47.67 yards per return, including a 65 yarder.

Last season, WMU was one of the worst teams in the country in kickoff returns, averaging just 15.76 yards per return, fourth fewest in the nation.

MSU was pretty solid on kick coverage last week, holding Tulsa to an average of 21.75 yards per return, with a long of 31 yards.

Punt Returns

Michigan State averaged 7.8 yards per punt return last week against Tulsa, with three different players getting return opportunities. Jalen Nailor averaged 8.5 yards per return with a long of 10 yards, while Cody White averaged 6.5 yards per return. White also had a long return negated with a penalty, which would have been one of the longer punt returns for MSU in the last few years.

As was mentioned above, the Broncos didn’t punt last week. Last season WMU was 58th nationally allowing 7.85 yards per return and allowed one punt return touchdown.

Western Michigan

Keith Mixon Jr. also handled punt return duties for Western, getting one punt return opportunity that he took back 21 yards. All told Mixon had a big return day, totaling 164 yards and averaging 41 yards per return opportunity.

MSU meanwhile held Tulsa to a 5.5 yard average on four punt returns last week. They did have one return for a long of 11 yards.


Wanted to bring this up separately this week, mostly because it was the one area where MSU was not very good. Cole Hahn averaged 56.14 yards per kickoff last week, which was 118th in the country through week one.

He also booted one out of bounds, something he only did three times last year.

The average last week was 4.35 yards worse than his average from the previous season and he had just one touchback in seven kickoffs.

I’m not sure whether MSU was trying to kick it short to force returns, but after seeing Mixon last week, they might want to think about kicking it as deep as possible.

Meanwhile, Western had problems of their own. Thiago Kapps had seven kickoffs and averaged 59.29 yards per kick, but sent TWO out of bounds. That led to punter Nick Mihalic getting a couple tries and averaging 59.50 yards per kickoff. Neither kicker recorded a touchback and their combined average ranked 104th in week one.


Michigan State had a very solid game overall in the special teams department, despite the short kickoffs. Coghlin and Hartbarger remain studs in the kicking game, and Jalen Nailor has game breaking speed on kick returns. The coverage units have been solid as well.

Western has a solid third phase, and Mixon flashed some big time return skills last week, but overall they don’t have the top to bottom unit that MSU does.

Big edge to MSU in the kicking game makes the difference in giving MSU the overall edge on special teams this week.