Special teams are the one unit on a football team you don’t want to underperform. There’s a reason they’re labeled “special,” after all. A missed kick cn be the difference between a victory and a loss, and a good punt can turn the game on its head.
Akron had one player doing both jobs in 2018, which was probably not an ideal situation for the Zips. Nick Gasser did the best he could do being asked to perform double duty, but with Akron’s offensive struggles (he punted 75 times) and tendency to be conservative on offense (22 attempts on field goals, including an astonising 11 attempts from 40-49 yards,) it was clear he was pretty tired at the end of the season, as he made only 72.7 percent of his field goals and had a net average of 39 yards per punt.
The kick return game was 128th in the country, only better than Army, with 330 yards total (14.4 yards per return) in 2018. The kick return defense wasn’t terribly better, ranking 110th in the country and allowing 23.3 yards per kick.
Akron’s punting units functioned a lot better, with the punting offense ranked 66th (150 yards gained) and scoring one return touchdown, and the punting defense ranked 36th, allowing only 130 yards on 23 attempted returns, with one touchdown given.
This season, the kicker and punter battles will be wide open with three punters and three kickers duking it out for the two starting positions.
In the return game, Jeremiah Knight will likely return to his position as a primary returner.
- Nick Gasser: 16-of-22 field goals (72.7 percent), long of 49 yards; 75 punts for 2,952 net yards (39.4 net average), four touchbacks, 11 fair catches in 2018.
- Jeremiah Knight (kick/punt returner): 11 punt returns, 142 yards and a TD; 16 kick returns for 245 yards in 2018
- Jerry Fitschen (kickoff specialst)
- Cory Smigel (transfer from Syracuse)
Jerry Fitschen, redshirt junior (Orange Lutheran HS/Orange, California)
- 2018 stats: 52 kickoffs for 3,203 yards (61.6 yards per kickoff average), 29 touchbacks, 1-of-1 on extra points in 12 games
- Career stats: 53 kickoffs for 3,259 yards, 29 touchbacks, 1-of-1 on extra points in 13 games
Fitschen, a six-foot, 210 lb. lefty kicker, was the kickoff specialist for Akron in 2018 after taking a redshirt season, and proved to be adequate, though the return defense unit did him no favors. WIth a 61.6 yard per kickoff average and the unit allowing 23.3 yards per return, kicks netted an average of 48.3 yards per kickoff.
Although listed as a kicker and punter, Fitshen was projected in high school as a kickoff specialist and punter, so it would not be outside the realm of possibility for him to be in the running for the punter opening while also keeping his KOS spot.
Jonah Wieland, redshirt sophomore (Hudson HS/Hudson, Ohio)
- No career stats at Akron
A six-foot-one, 210 lb. prospect, Wieland is the only listed punter on the roster and will likely battle for the starting punter position in speing and fall camps.
Wieland was considered a Korblue Kicking Fab 50 prospect coming out of Hudson HS, averaging 43.6 yards per punt as a senior, with 35 punts inside the 20-yard line in 63 attempts, with a long of 86 yards. A first-team All-Ohio punter as a senior, Wieland held offers from Cornell (FCS), Valparaisio (FCS) and Mt. St. Joseph (D-III) but ultimately chose to walk-on at Akron.
Cory Smigel, transfer redshirt freshman (North Royalton HS/North Royalton, Ohio)
- No career stats between Syracuse and Akron
Smigel is a bit of a wild card, standing at a paltry 5’8”, 144 lbs., and there’s not a lot of information about him out there outside of an apparently entertaining Twitter profile and a highlight reel which shows him booting 70+ yard field goals.
After taking a year off from football in 2017, Smigel accepted a preferred walk-on spot with Syracuse and enrolled early. He left soon after and found himself on the Akron roster for spring camps. It’s been three-plus years since he’s seen a kick in game action, so it’s hard to project how he’ll fit in.
As a high school senior, Smigel was a kicker and punter, averaging 44.4 yards per kickoff, 37.1 yards per punt (long of 61 yards,) 5-of-7 on field goals and 17-of-18 on extra points.
Other rostered names at kicker/punter:
- Ethan Slike, redshirt freshman (Greensburg Catholic Central HS, Greensburg, Pennsylvania): As a HS senior, went 6-of-6 on field goals, 18-of-18 on extra point attempts. Also held KOS and punting duties. Two-time All-First Team All-Eastern A Conference selection. Also played soccer and basketball. Had scholarship offers from Robert Morris (FCS) and West Virginia Weslyan (D-II) before accepting preferred walk-on spot at Akron. Could be in kicker mix.
- David Albert III, redshirt junior (Madison HS, Madison, Ohio): Handled placekicking and punting duties for three years in HS. Also played soccer, tennis and basketball. A National Honor Soceity member and Akron’s Deans List selection. Could be in kicker mix.