Minnesota Football: Special Teams Have Been Key to Gopher Winning Streak

Pat Lovell-USA TODAY Sports

During Minnesota's fantastic four game B1G win streak we've given plenty of credit where credit is due: the coaching staff, the offense, the defense, David Cobb, Philip Nelson, Ra'Shede Hageman, GOLDEN-I (FYI to Black Shoe Diaries- it IS a thing and it's happening) and, of course, a heavy dose of shits and motions.

So today, let's talk about some of the less heralded or obvious players, groups and factors that have contributed to Minnesota's success- their Special Teams. Under the tutelage of Special Teams coach Jay Sawvel and Special Teams Quality Control Jay Nunez, this group has indeed been special. Punter Peter Mortell has won the conference's Special Teams Player of the Week award the past two weeks, and has perhaps the best chance of any Gopher player- even Hageman- to be named All-Conference this season. The Gophers have had terrible punting for the past few years, and in his first year as a starter the redshirt sophomore has stabilized a vital and important position on Jerry Kill's football team. Kill heavily emphasizes field position as a key to success, and we've seen it in the past four games.

When the Gophers bring in Mortell, he's done a fantastic job of pinning the opposition deep, and giving the other team tough field position to start drives on. In the win over Penn State the Nittany Lions began a drive in Minnesota territory only once (from a third quarter fumble), and otherwise never started a drive beyond their own 39 yard line. In what was a punt-astic second half Penn State began three of their fives drives inside their own 15 at their own 1, 2 and 12 yard lines. All of those came off Mortell punts, including a 62 yard bomb in the third quarter that was downed at the PSU 2 yard line.

As good as Mortell has been, a punter can drop all the punts he wants inside the 10 yard line, but you also need excellent coverage teams to get down to it, and Minnesota has had that too. The punt coverage group has just gets better and better as the season goes on, and it's fun that I don't get the shakes anymore when Minnesota brings in the punting unit. Perhaps you've been able to block it from your memory, but it wasn't long ago that when the Gophers brought out the punting group on fourth down, the ball was just as likely to end up shanked 15 yards downfield as it was to be downed inside the 20. From 2010-2012 the Gophers were worst or second worst in the conference in punting average, and because of a, um, "still developing" offense, it wasn't like they were lacking in opportunities. So if you feel like the punting this season is drastically better, it's because it is.

The kicking game has also been much improved. Senior Chris Hawthorne has returned to the form he showed in 2011 when he was 6-9 on field goals and 14-15 on PAT's before a leg injury ended his season after only seven games. Before this year that was the only season since 2009 when the Gophers weren't one of the worst field goal kicking teams in the Big Ten. Yes, Hawthorne was a little shaky to start as he missed three extra points in his first four games, but he's been pretty much automatic in conference play as he hasn't missed an extra point and is 7 for 8 on field goal attempts. In 10 games overall he's made 12 of 15 field goals, and his 80% success rate is second amongst B1G kickers with at least 10 attempts. This week it was also announced Hawthorne is a finalist for the Wuerffel Trophy, a national award that "honors the college football player who best combines exemplary community service with outstanding academic and athletic achievement."

Hawthorne, who is an Academic All-Big Ten honoree, has completed nearly 200 documented hours of community service since Sept. 2009 and has volunteered countless more as he continues to give back to those around him. In addition, Hawthorne has been a driving force behind Minnesota’s upcoming Unlimited Dance Marathon, which will benefit Amplatz Children's Hospital. Hawthorne is also the Big Ten Conference representative for the Division I Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, becoming the first Gopher to hold this position.

Very, very cool, and obviously an even better person than football player.

The Gopher special teams have been improved in the return game as they're currently third in the B1G in kick return yard average at 23.4 and sixth in punt return average of 10.3. They're also the only team in the conference to return a kick and punt for a touchdown this season, both of which were housed by junior Marcus Jones. His 26.3 yard average per return on kickoffs is fourth in the B1G, and his 13.8 yd avg on punt returns would rank second, but with only eight punt returns he doesn't have enough to yet qualify. Senior Derek Engel took over the punt return duties the past four games and has been very reliable fielding punts while Jones and Antonio Johnson (five returns for 143 yds- a 28.6 yd avg) continue to be a threat to score returning kicks.

We already mentioned how well the punt coverage group has done, and the kickoff coverage unit has been solid as well. It ranks sixth in the B1G with a net average of 40.2 yards per return, up only slightly from last season's 5th ranking with 39.7. Hawthorne has been booming 'em off the tee as well, as his average kickoff distance of 62.5 yards is fourth longest in the conference.

The 2013 season has shown improvement on offense and defense, but today's let's recognize the big improvement we've seen on special teams. The coaches have been working hard to turn this into a strength instead of a weakness, and they've played a big part in Minnesota's four game conference winning streak, and will be an important factor in bringing back The Axe next Saturday.

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