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2019 Indiana Football Preview: The Specialists

Kickers, punters and returners are people too

NCAA Football: Iowa at Indiana
get Reese Taylor the ball however you can.
Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

While what they do is just a small fraction of the game, special teams players merit attention because of the value they bring in that small amount of time that they’re on the field. Just one play, good or bad, can completely change a game or bring a crowd to its feet. Punters are key to the field position battle, kickers are the ones thrown into some of the biggest moments of the season and returners can be remembered as heroes if they can make a few guys miss. With all of this in mind, IU’s specialists seem solid heading into the fall, with the opportunity to have a pretty good season.

Players to Watch

Haydon Whitehead, redshirt senior - Returning for his third season handling punting duties, Whitehead has the ability to be one of the better punters in the conference. The last two years he’s been a Ray Guy Award watch lister, but didn’t receive the honor heading into this season. Following 2017 he was an honorable mention All-Big Ten player. Since coming over to Bloomington from Australia, the former Australian Rules Football player has been solid for the Hoosiers. Last season his production dipped a bit, but that’s largely due to attempting significantly fewer punts (85 in 2017, 51 in 2018). He still managed to drop exactly one-third of his punts inside the opponent’s 20-yard-line, including six inside the 10 and five inside the five. He still managed to connect on four punts of 50 yards or longer, one fewer than his first year on campus, despite the lower number of attempts. His average distance also remained roughly the same, winding up at 40 yards per punt. With an offense that should be better (could it get worse?), but is largely a question mark heading into the season, Whitehead could be an important piece for IU, at least early in the season.

Logan Justus, redshirt senior - Last season Justus took over for longtime kicker Griffin Oakes (the kick was good) and did a fine job in his first season. He went 15-18 on field goals and 32-33 on PATs, good enough for him to be named a Lou Groza Award semifinalist, All-Big Ten and IU’s Most Outstanding Specialist of the Year. The highest moment of the season for him was an eventual game-winning field goal against Maryland. Here’s the deal with Justus: from inside 40 yards he’s cash. He hit all 11 of his attempts from that distance last season. Between 40 and 49 yards things got a bit dicier for him, as he went 4-6 from that distance. Beyond 50 yards? He missed his only attempt. He only received the one attempts because it seemed like at that distance the coaching staff was more comfortable either punting or going for it on fourth down. His longest make of the season was from 44 yards. The big question for Justus, and the factor that will decide whether he’s simply a fine/good kicker or a great kicker, is whether or not he can actually hit from beyond 45 yards. In his time as a Hoosier Oakes hit three 50+ yarders, including a 58-yarder as a freshman. The ability to at least have confidence in your kicker from that distance is a big boost for a team.

Jared Smolar, redshirt junior - The former rutger man took over on kickoffs for IU last season and should play the same role this fall. He averaged 57 yards per kick on his 64 attempts, including 23 touchbacks (roughly 36 percent of his kickoffs) and just one that went out of bounds. He also made a pair of tackles. Expect more of the same in 2019.

Reese Taylor, sophomore - One of the more dynamic players on the IU roster, Taylor is a natural choice to return punts and kicks. It doesn’t appear as if he’ll be playing offense this season, serving as a defensive back this season, so using this as a way to get the ball in his hands and let him potentially do some damage is a good idea. J-Shun Harris II returned punts last season, but he graduated as did kick returners Ricky Brookins and Mike Majette, which leaves Taylor as IU’s most successful returning returner. As a freshman he returned three kicks, totaling 66 yards with a longest return of 28 yards.

Whop Philyor, junior - Like Taylor, Philyor is the type of player that you want returning kicks. He’s an electric playmaker, shifty and fast. He didn’t return a kick during his sophomore season, in which he was limited by an injury, but he did as a freshman. In 2017 he returned three kicks for 66 yards as a freshman and his longest return was 25 yards.

Battle to Watch

What will the Hoosiers do when they need a deep field goal? That seems to be the big question regarding the specialists. Has Justus expanded his range? Will the Hoosiers prepare a long-range specialist, possibly Smolar? Will IU continue to either punt or keep the offense on the field? All possibilities. Also, former Army All-American kicker Charles Campbell is on the roster after redshirting last season. He was also a finalist for Tennessee Mr. Football as a high school senior, as a kicker. He hit a 50-yarder in high school and should be the future of the kicker position for IU. Watch to see if he can get himself on the field somehow