Any team watching 24 seniors play their final college football game has to be prepared for quite a renovation the following season. So it is with Wisconsin’s specialists, where three players who have held their spots for at least three seasons will soon bid the Badgers adieu. All three will be very difficult to replace.
- In three seasons work, Jim Leonhard has established a new Big Ten career record with 1,313 punt return yards.
- Mike Allen split time as the Badgers No. 1 place kicker as a freshman and has held that spot the past three seasons. His 207 career points and .638 field goal percentage are both fifth in UW’s career annals.
- Matt Katula is in his fourth season as the Badgers’ No. 1 long snapper.
Katula’s unique trade is largely invisible on gameday, but essential for any team hoping to have a decent kicking game. The top contenders to replace Katula are redshirt freshman walk-on Steve Johnson—who has received considerable reps at the spot in bowl practices—and freshman Dave Peck. The latter has spent more time at tight end in bowl workouts, but will also been in the mix at long snapper when spring practices roll around.
“It’s going to be tough,” special teams coach Brian Murphy said. “Those guys are going to compete. We’ll try to develop some more guys in there just to get a pool of guys.
“Any time you lose of guy of [Katula’s] caliber and at that position, you really have to do a lot of work before you arrive at August camp. Those guys have to be ready. You can’t develop your timing, you can’t develop your niche in August camp. Coaching them in springtime and them on their own during the summer, those two are really going to have to make a move.”
The kicker’s duties will fall to either freshman Taylor Mehlhaff or classmate Adam Schober. Mehlhaff handled the Badgers’ kickoff duties this season, while Schober is redshirting. Both are very strong-legged kickers who have been working to develop as place kickers.
All of the place kickers—Allen included—receive extra work in bowl practices working with their snappers and holders. Wisconsin has included a field goal session in practice each of the past two days, and Mehlhaff and Schober were each 1-for-1 both days.
“Once we get past the bowl game then you’re eyes go on to the springtime to the younger players in the program and where guys can help you and what competition needs to be created to get you ready for the following year,” Murphy said.
The most crowded special teams competition will be at the return spots. Leonhard has been one of the nation’s top punt returners the past three seasons. Junior Brandon Williams will be available to return kicks again, but the Badgers would prefer to hand his duties to another player.
Candidates for each role include junior tailback Brian Calhoun and freshmen receivers Jarvis Minton and Marcus Randle El and freshman cornerback Antonio Freeman. Freshman tailback Jamil Walker will receive a look at kick returner. Sophomore safety Zach Hampton will likely continue to serve as the second deep back on kick returns.
“We are going to give guys a chance to show their wares,” Murphy said. “I’m looking forward to it because I think we have a very talented group of young players in the program that haven’t come to surface yet. Then with the development of Brian Calhoun you really have quite a pool of athletes.”