Between now and the Gophers' spring game at TCF Bank Stadium on Saturday, April 9, we'll be breaking down each position group on both offense and defense. We'll take a look at who is leaving, who is coming back, and what to watch for before Minnesota takes the field for fall training camp.
Last but not least? Special teams.
Key Departure(s): Peter Mortell
Key Returner(s): Ryan Santoso
New Arrival(s): None
Redshirt junior Ryan Santoso has been a more than solid kicker for the Gophers the past two years. In 2015, Santoso made 17-of-21 field goal attempts, including seven field goals of 40 yards or more. That field goal percentage (.810) was second-highest in the Big Ten last season. Believe it or not, Santoso was even the team's leading scorer, once you add up all the field goals and extra points (of which he missed none). In addition to be named third team All-Big Ten and Academic All-Big Ten, he was also named a semifinalist for the Lou Groza Award for the nation's top kicker.
27 of his 58 kickoffs in 2015 were touchbacks, a small percentage drop from his numbers the previous season, when 38 of 70 kickoff attempts went for touchbacks.
Simply put, kicking is taken care of for the next two seasons, as long as Santoso remains healthy and eligible. But punting is a different story altogether.
I think I speak for everyone when I say that Peter Mortell will be missed. On the field, Mortell was a fantastic player. In three years as the Gophers' starting punter, Mortell held a career average of 44.0 yards (the best in team history), with 57 career punts that traveled 50 yards or more and six punts that went at least 60 yards. 76 of his 203 career punts landed inside the 20-yard line. In 2014, Mortell was named the 2014 Eddleman-Fields Big Ten Punter of the Year, and was also named first team All-Big Ten.
Off the field, Mortell proved to be a fantastic human being, as well. There was the Citrus Bowl, where he spent $452 worth of gift cards to Best Buy to purchase gifts for children at St. Joseph's Home for Children in Minneapolis. Then in December 2015 he raised more than $28,000 as part of his 'A Very Specialist Christmas' campaign to benefit teenagers at the University of Minnesota Masonic Children's Hospital. He helped popularize (and ensure the survival of) the Bits of Broken Chair Trophy with Nebraska, and was no doubt one of the masterminds behind the hilarious 'Gopher Specialists' Twitter account (an account that you should be following, if you aren't already). Mortell was also the first player to ever be named Holder of the Year.
Replacing Mortell will be easier said than done. Santoso was his primary back-up last season, but Tracy Claeys has said that he would prefer not to have the same person handle both responsibilities. Redshirt sophomore Logan McElfresh and redshirt freshman Jacob Herbers are the lone punters on the roster. Neither one has seen game action, so spring practice will be the perfect opportunity for them to showcase their skills and for the coaching staff to hopefully see some separation.
For the return game, expect to see sophomore cornerback KiAnte Hardin returning both punts and kickoffs. He developed into the team's top returner towards the end of last season and provided a much-needed spark on special teams. He'll likely be paired with senior cornerback Jalen Myrick or sophomore running back Shannon Brooks on kickoff returns, unless another playmaker emerges to relieve either of those two.
That wraps up our spring practice position previews. Missed one? Here is the complete rundown: Quarterbacks | Running Backs | Wide Receivers and Tight Ends | Offensive Line | Defensive Line | Linebackers | Defensive Backs