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Badgers searching for new weapons on special teams

Badgers searching for new weapons on special teams

larsh special teams

Kicker Collin Larsh went 12 of 18 on field goals in 2019, but he was 5 of 11 on attempts of 30 yards or longer.

University of Wisconsin football coach Paul Chryst acknowledges there are multiple questions to be answered on special teams heading into the 2020 season.

“I think there’s some areas that for us to be better, we can get better in those areas,” Chryst said. “There’s going to be some new faces for us.

The biggest challenge for the Badgers may be replacing their two biggest weapons on that unit, one who made an impact with the ball in his hands and the other with his ability to keep it away from the opponents.

Gone is Aron Cruickshank, who transferred to Rutgers after two seasons at UW. The New York native said he made the shocking move because he wanted to be closer to home.

Cruickshank tied a single-season program record in 2019 with two kickoff returns for touchdowns, including one in the Rose Bowl loss to Oregon. UW averaged 25.9 yards per kickoff return in Big Ten play, which led all teams.

One candidate to replace Cruickshank is sophomore Isaac Guerendo, a speedy sophomore from Indiana. Guerendo, who’s also in the mix for playing time at tailback, showed off his explosiveness in the regular-season finale against Minnesota last season with a 49-yard gain after taking a reverse on a kickoff.

Meanwhile, Zach Hintze’s graduation left another major hole to fill. Hintze ranked third nationally in touchbacks last season with 69 and seventh in touchback percentage (77.5).

Jack Van Dyke, a true freshman from Neenah, arrives at UW with a reputation for having a big leg and could be next in line to replace Hintze as a kickoff specialist.

UW also is looking for a new punter after the graduation of Anthony Lotti, who accounted for just over 80 percent of UW’s attempts the past four seasons, and backup Connor Allen.

Punting hasn’t been an area of strength for the Badgers. UW ranked 13th in that category in Big Ten play last season with a net average of 35.6 yards after finishing last the previous two seasons.

Regardless of who ends up punting for UW this season, that player will enter the opener against Illinois on Oct. 24 with no experience at the NCAA Division I level.

Andy Vujnovich, a Columbus native, transferred to UW after two seasons at Dubuque. Vujnovich, who averaged 36.7 yards per attempt in 2019 and 37.4 yards the previous campaign, is waiting on word from the NCAA whether his appeal for immediate eligibility will be granted.

Another local product, junior Conor Schlichting, redshirted at UW in 2018 and didn’t appear in any games last season. Schlichting was a four-year letterwinner as a goalkeeper in soccer at Madison East.

The only other punter on the roster is Gavin Meyers, a freshman who played at Oshkosh Lourdes and is also listed as a kicker.

Chryst said it’s also important to find core players on the special teams units.

“We’ve got some guys who’ve played a lot of special teams, but maybe they’re stepping up in a role on offense or defense, I think they’ll be able to do some, but now what can we develop?” Chryst said. “I think that’s right now what we’re trying to figure out: Who are the next couple guys that can step in and contribute? We’ve had good work, and I think with that work we’re starting to see some guys, maybe some younger guys have come up. But now you want to see, OK, can they do it — they’ve flashed, they’ve shown it — but can they do it consistently? That’s going to be a big part of it.”

Last, but not least, there’s the matter of getting better production out of the placekicking unit. Junior Collin Larsh went 12 of 18 on field goals in 2019 after being selected over Hintze following a competition in camp, but the former Monona Grove athlete was only 5 of 11 on attempts of 30 yards or longer.

Hintze was used as a long-distance weapon on field goals, setting a program record with a 62-yarder in a win over Purdue.

“If we’re going to give ourselves the best chance to be the best team we can be, the special teams will be a huge part of it,” Chryst said. “I’m anticipating in every game, but certainly the beginning of the first games of the year ... those are hard to get a lot of reps on in a practice,” Chryst said. “You can get in a situation, but you won’t have the volume of kickoff returns or kickoff coverage as you do offensively and defensively, it just doesn’t work that way. Been trying to do a good job and spending a lot of time with it; I think that’s going to be really important for this team.”

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