Spring wrap-up: Special teams

Ken DeBauche (UW Athletics)

Part 9 of BadgerNation.com's look back at Wisconsin's 2006 spring football practice season

News and notes — Ray Guy favorite Ken DeBauche returned as the No. 1 punter and again is backed up by Paul Standring.

Walk-on Matt Fischer is backing up top place kicker Taylor Mehlhaff. Adam Schober, who competed with Mehlhaff for the starting spot last spring and fall, did not practice this spring due to injury.

Steve Johnson returns as the No. 1 long snapper, with Dave Peck and walk-on Andrew Woodward as backups.

UW worked extensively on punt returning and punt coverage during the spring. The favorites to replace Brandon Williams as the team's punt returner are Marcus Randle El or Zach Hampton. Ben Strickland, Jerry Butler and Jarvis Minton (briefly, prior to his foot injury) also tried their hands at returning punts.

Spring MVP — DeBauche. He averaged 50 yards per punt on two attempts in the spring game, and, for him, the performance seemed run-of-the mill. It was more than a little odd when DeBauche was not one of the final finalists for the Ray Guy last season. If he continues to progress as he has throughout his career to-date, and to punt like he did this spring, he'll win the award running away this season. DeBauche can boom a punt deep down field or spot it at the 2. And he puts superhuman hang time on it.

Springing ahead — While he does not have extensive range, Matt Fischer showed that he can be a quality backup place kicker for UW. He has an accurate leg and seems unabashed by the transition to college kicking. This is important because with Schober's persistent injuries, it is no small detail to have another kicker who can be trusted if needed.

Pressing questions — Who returns kicks and punts? The Badgers will miss Brandon Williams, who was one of the best in the nation in doing so last season. Who fills in for him this year is still a wide open question.

Minton was the backup kick returner last season and leaves this spring as the No. 1 kick returner on UW's official post-spring depth chart, but Minton barely practiced this spring before he was sidelined by injury. And a healthy Minton could still end up being the team's top receiver.

Zach Hampton, the personal protector for Williams the past two seasons, has the most return experience on the team and could end up adopting the punt or kick returner role, or remaining as the personal protector.

Randle El has the quickness and toughness to be a good punt returner if he can clean up a few hiccups catching the football.

Looking ahead — Randle El, Hampton and even Strickland looked like they could handle the punt returning duties, even if they are a bit less explosive than Williams or his predecessor, Jim Leonhard. Expect this competition to last through much of spring. Head coach Bret Bielema has said that several true freshmen will have a chance as well.

Kick returner is similarly wide open and could also be determined by a look at the freshmen. An X-factor is redshirt freshman tailback Jerry Butler, who is extraordinary speed but needs to consistently catch the ball to be a candidate as a kick or punt returner.

The kicking game is set with DeBauche and Mehlhaff and should be very good. Johnson is a high-quality long snapper.

With a lot of linebackers, defensive backs and so on who run well and are physical players, UW should not have any trouble filling out its coverage teams.

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