The Horned Frogs have one of the strongest special teams units in the country heading into 2014. They’re bringing everyone back. Junior Jaden Oberkrom is a top-of-the-line kicker who went 14-of-18 last season after a 22-for-30 freshman debut. He was 13-of-14 on field goals inside the 50-yard line and made a 56-yarder against Kansas State. Junior punter Ethan Perry (40.3-yard average) is a three-year starter. Junior running back B.J. Catalon’s 26.5-yard average on kickoff returns was No. 2 in the Big 12 and top-20 in the nation. Sophomore receiver Cameron Echols-Luper’s 13.4-yard average on punt returns was No. 3 in the Big 12 and also in the top 20 in the nation. He took his first punt return 51 yards, his longest of the season. Expect the Horned Frogs to be dangerous in the kicking game.
Junior Spencer Roth returns as the top punter in the Big 12 from a year ago with a 45.8-yard average. Also back are senior Levi Norwood, who had two punt-return touchdowns last year, and sophomore kick returner Corey Coleman, whose 28.4-yard kickoff return average led the Big 12 and ranked ninth in the FBS. Freshman Johnny Jefferson, clocked at a team-best 4.41-second 40-yard dash time in the spring, is listed above Coleman on the post-spring depth chart. Either way, there will be plenty of speed in the return game. The Bears did lose kicker Aaron Jones, who made a Big 12 low 14-of-23 field goals. Freshman Chris Callahan is first in line to replace him.
3. Kansas State
The Wildcats are loaded with return men in senior Tyler Lockett, freshman Judah Jones and junior Morgan Burns. Lockett ranks second among active players in the FBS in career kickoff return average (31.1 yards) and kickoff return touchdowns (four). Jones and Burns impressed in KSU’s spring game with a combined 88 return yards. Junior kicker Jack Cantele made 11 of 13 fields last year, the longest from 44 yards. Punting is a question mark. Mark Krause averaged 41.4 yards as a 2013 senior, and vying to replace him are redshirt freshmen Nick Walsh and Mitch Lochbihler, who averaged averaged 42.7 and 38.6 yards, respectively, in the spring game.
The Sooners have never had an all-American kicker, but senior Michael Hunnicutt might be the first. He made 24 field goals — second in the FBS — out of 27 last season with a long from 47 yards. Hunnicutt’s 62 for 72 in his career. Senior Jed Barnett’s 41.7-yard average was good for fifth in the Big 12. The Sooners took a hit in the return game, losing Jalen Saunders, top-10 nationally with a 15.4-yard punt-return average, and Roy Finch, top-25 nationally with a 25.6-yard kickoff-return average. Replacing them will be one of the biggest tasks for the preseason Big 12 favorites. Sophomore Alex Ross and junior Sterling Shepard could fill these roles.
5. West Virginia
Junior Nick O’Toole is not only one of the best punters in the Big 12 but one of the best in the country. He had a league-high 26 punts of at least 50 yards and averaged 44.1 yards in 2013. O’Toole is, without question, the best player in the Mountaineers’ special team unit for 2014. Sophomore kicker Josh Lambert had a solid freshman season, converting 17-of-23 attempts with a long from 50 yards. The 17 field goals were fourth-most in the Big 12, and Lambert made a 53-yard field goal in the spring game. West Virginia ranked last in the league in both kickoff-return (18.6 yards) and punt-return (3.2) averages. The Mountaineers will try to get more fromm sophomore Wendell Smallwood, senior Mario Alford and junior Jordan Thompson.
6. Texas Tech
Kicker Ryan Bustin had a banner junior year. He made a school-record 23 field goals, tied for third in the nation, out of 27 and was a Groza Award semifinalist. His longest make last year was 43 yards. The Red Raiders lost four-year starting punter Ryan Erxleben, who averaged 41.9 yards for his career, but replace him with strong-legged junior Taylor Symmank, who briefly took Erxleben’s job last year and averaged 42.0 yards on 12 punts. In the spring game, Symmank punted seven times for an average of 45.3 yards. The Red Raiders have loads of potential in the return game, where senior Jakeem Grant and sophomore Reginald Davis have accounted for three kickoff-return touchdowns in the last 15 games. Punt returns are a question mark.
7. Iowa State
The Cyclones didn’t take as hard a hit as Texas, but they will have to replace Kirby Van Der Camp, a three-time second-team all-Big 12 punter. Van Der Kamp averaged 41.6 yards last season. Replacing him won’t be an easy task. Incoming three-star freshman Colin Downing (43.2 average as a high-school senior) is hoping to fill that void. Sophomore kicker Cole Netten made 13 of 18 field goals last season, then hit a 56-yarder in the spring game. The return game looks to be the strength of the Cyclones’ special teams with seniors Jarvis West and Aaron Wimberly and junior DeVondrick Nealy. West averaged 13.4 yards on punt returns. Nealy, Wimberly and West all made big plays returning kickoffs, Nealy and West each taking one back for a touchdown and Wimberly returning one 78 yards. The three combined averaged 29.7 yards on 24 chances.
The Longhorns are going to miss All-American kicker/punter Anthony Fera, who was a Lou Groza Award finalist and punted for a 40.7-yard average. Junior Nick Rose, the Longhorns’ kickoff specialist the last two years, made a 40-yard field goal in the spring game. Sophomore Nick Jordan, who converted 9 of 15 field goals two years ago, and junior Ben Pruitt are other options. Senior William Russ punted most of the time in the spring game and averaged 43.3 yards. As far as the return game is concerned, the Longhorns didn’t lose much. Junior Daje Johnson, senior Quandre Diggs, junior Marcus Johnson and senior Jaxon Shipley all have experience. Daje Johnson, Diggs and Shipley handled all the team’s punt returns last season for a composite 8.6-yard return average. The primary kick-return men back are Daje Johnson (19.1) and Marcus Johnson (20.6). Kendall Sanders averaged a team-best 23.8 yards on kickoff returns last season, but Texas coach Charlie Strong suspended Sanders and teammate Montrel Meander on Thursday after they were arrested on felony sexual assault charges.
9. Oklahoma State
In all their turnover, the Cowboys lost two terrific weapons on special teams — cornerback Justin Gilbert, who set a Big 12 record with six career kickoff-return touchdowns, and receiver Josh Stewart, whose 16.7-yard punt-return average ranked fourth in the nation. Stewart, who returned two punts for touchdowns, left a year early for the NFL. However, OSU expects big things from speedy juco transfer and track athlete Tyreek Hill, who will be an all-purpose player. Young kicker Ben Grogan was 11 for 18 on field goals as a freshman, and senior punter Kip Smith averaged 39.6 yards — last among the league’s regular punters. OSU signed three-star punter Zach Sinor, a Class 4A first-team all-state honoree at Medina Valley, to make things better.
The Kansas special-teams unit is mediocre. Senior Trevor Pardula was the Big 12’s third-leading punter last season with a 43.7-yard average, although junior Eric Kahn punted all four times in KU’s spring game for an average of 39.5 yards. Sophomore Matthew Wyman made a game-winning 52-yard field goal to beat Louisiana Tech last season, but struggled after that. Wyman finished 5 for 10 and eventually lost his job to Ron Doherty, who was a senior. The Jayhawks return senior JaCorey Shepherd, whose 22.8-yard kickoff-return average ranked seventh in the Big 12.
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