In our “Big Ten Breakdown” series, we will examine the five best players in the conference at each position. The series continues with a look at the specialists in the Big Ten.
It might be deemed as the third phase, but special teams can change the game at any moment. There are several top return men and some place kickers and punters who make an impact.
Here are the five best specialists in the Big Ten:
5. Griffin Oakes, Indiana
A kicker had to get on this list somehow, someway, and Oakes might just be the best at his job in the Big Ten.
Oakes drilled 24 of his 29 field goal attempts, was 53 of 57 on his point-after tries, converted five of his seven attempts between 40 and 49 yards and made one kick longer than 50 yards.
Oakes was named to the Lou Groza Awawrd watch list and might finish the season as the best kicker in the conference, if not the country.
4. Desmond King, Iowa
Known more as a shutdown cornerback, King is also a talented special-teamer. He returned 29 kickoffs last season for 708 yards and also returned 17 punts for 241 yards during an outstanding junior season.
With King’s NFL draft stock as high as ever, the Hawkeyes may be cautious with their star cornerback in the return game. Nonetheless, King is too impactful on special teams to not be a factor for the Hawkeyes.
3. Solomon Vault, Northwestern
Vault was an electric kick returner last season, racking up 657 return yards and two touchdowns for the Wildcats during his sophomore season.
Vault doesn’t get much recognition, but he is a pivotal player for the Wildcats. Northwestern’s offense should take a step forward in 2016, but it could always afford game-breaking special teams plays for an added advantage. Vault can change a game at any moment and shouldn’t be underestimated as one of the top return men in the conference.
2. Janarion Grant, Rutgers
Grant led the Big Ten with 984 kick return yards and three touchdowns last season. He has tremendous speed in the open field and is a tough man to catch when he gets a crease.
With Rutgers’ defense likely being toward the bottom of the Big Ten, Grant will probably see plenty of opportunities to show off his return skills. Unfortunately, most of Grant’s big plays might come when the Scarlet Knights are down a substantial margin.
1. William Likely, Maryland
Likely is the best return man in the conference and therefore the best special teams player. He returned 35 kickoffs for 789 yards and a touchdown and also racked up 419 yards and two touchdowns on punt returns last season.
Likely might be Maryland’s best player and has been named to a slew of preseason award watch lists, including the Paul Hornung Award as the nation’s most versatile player. Versatility might be Likely’s middle name.
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