Change is the operative word for the University of Wisconsin football team’s special teams this season.
For the first time since 2008, the Badgers will have a new punter and kicker following the departure of two seniors — punter Brad Nortman and kicker Philip Welch — who held the jobs the last four seasons.
With six new assistants, some of the coaches in charge of special teams units will be changing. The only holdover is defensive line coach Charlie Partridge, who will continue to be in charge of the punt team as he has been the last few years.
Wide receivers coach Zach Azzanni will handle punt return, tight ends coach Eddie Faulkner will take kickoff return and linebackers coach Andy Buh will be in charge of kickoff coverage.
There are also significant rules changes involving kickoffs and onside kicks.
The NCAA moved kickoffs from the 30-yard line to the 35, moved touchbacks to the 25 instead of the 20 and limited players on the coverage team to a 5-yard running start. It was all done to try and decrease the injury toll on football’s most dangerous play.
Onsides kicks were changed, too, to protect the return team. Kicks have to hit the ground twice and the returner can call a fair catch. A 1-yard “halo” also must be observed around returners on punts and kickoffs.
Finally, the Badgers must replace long-snapper Kyle Wojta and the holder in Nortman.
About the only constant on special teams is junior wide receiver Jared Abbrederis.
Abbrederis ranked third nationally in punt returns last season, averaging 15.8 yards — the second-best single-season average in school history. It trailed only the 16.9 average of Ira Matthews in 1978.
On kickoff returns, Abbrederis ranked sixth in the Big Ten Conference (24.6). But he showed what a threat he could be in the Big Ten championship game and the Rose Bowl when he returned 13 kickoffs for 342 yards (26.3).
Abbrederis also will be UW’s top receiver this season, so the coaches might want to lighten his load and find a new kickoff returner. Abbrederis said in the spring he wouldn’t give up the job without a fight.
“I don’t think it would necessarily be OK,” he said. “I’ll take everything I can get. But I know we have to be smart, too.”
In the midst of all the new faces, at least sophomore Kyle French got valuable experience as the field goal kicker in the first four games last season while Welch was out with an injury.
The offense was so dominant, French attempted only four field goals, making two — from 29 and 25 yards. He missed two attempts from 50. He also made a 29-yarder later in the season to finish 3 of 5.
“I think the most I got out of it was really that comfort level, being able to kick in front of 80,000 people instead of the 600 you’d get at a high school football game,” French said. “Just having that experience at the start of (last) year is really going to help me this fall.”
French had a strong performance in the spring game and goes into the season brimming with confidence but will still be pushed by incoming freshman walk-on Jack Russell from Waunakee.
Russell, who spent only two years kicking in high school, is expected to compete for the kickoff job. He worked with former UW kicker Taylor Mehlhaff in the offseason to improve his hang time on kicks But Russell could be a factor on field goals, too.
Drew Meyer, a redshirt freshman walk-on from Hartland Arrowhead, is the top contender to be the punter, but he has to show more consistency after struggling in the spring game.
Punter Brad Nortman and kicker Philip Welch held their jobs the last four years, while long snapper Kyle Wojta also must be replaced.
BURNING QUESTION | How much will Nortman be missed?
The Badgers didn’t need a great punter the last two seasons, but they had one anyway. Nortman’s contributions were easy to overlook since the offense was so prolific. He averaged 42.1 yards punting for his career, third-best in school history. He had a knack for pinning opponents inside the 20-yard line and coaches trusted him on some huge fake punts. He also took the dive in the Big Ten title game that drew the flag that sent UW to the Rose Bowl. If the offense is not as dominant this season, Nortman will be missed even more.
PLAYER TO WATCH | Jack Russell
He has a limited high school kicking background, having kicked for only two years. He handled kickoffs as a junior, while adding field goal duties as a senior. Before then, he was a soccer player. But Russell showed a strong and accurate leg during an all-star game last month and he’s got a chance to compete for both the kickoff and field goal jobs.