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Louisville Football Preseason Position Preview: Special Teams

David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

An area of contention for the Louisville fan base over the last few years has definitely been special teams. While the kicking and punting game have been strong from a position standpoint, coverage and returns of both have been lacking. The team had good moments with a couple of blocked punts and a kick return for a touchdown last season, but Bobby Petrino's history of special teams excellence has brought a upon a different level of excitement.

Top level teams are typically strong in the kicking game and Louisville enters the season with one of the better kickers in the country. John Wallace comes into his junior season having made 80% of his field goals in his career. Wallace doesn't have a power leg, but he is very accurate inside of 40 yards. Though it would be nice to have a kicker with a stronger leg, Wallace's reliability is much more important. Wasted opportunities to put points on the board will be a much bigger issue with the uptick in competition. Also, Wallace won't back down from a fight.

Josh Appleby came to Louisville with much fanfare as one of the top 10 kickers in the country. He has wowed fans during pregame with booming punts and kickoffs that, at times, end up going through the end zone. He hasn't gotten much playing time, but he has been an option for kickoffs. Appleby handled some kickoffs in practice as well as punting. He is definitely a great security blanket if he can't beat out the starters at either position.

Punt return yardage has been hard to come by against the Cards over the last few years. That's in part to Ryan Johnson's impressive hangtime. Johnson has put 33 of his 88 career punts inside the 20 and 26 of those punts have been fair caught. He doesn't have the power leg that Appleby has, but he does a great job of controlling the ball and his directional kicking is great. Petrino made it a point to find out exactly where each punt landed in a directional punting drill during practice and Johnson didn't disappoint. On four straight punts he put the ball inside the 8 yard line including two punts that he stuck inside the 3.

Petrino micromanages special teams, so I really expect a better overall performance this year. I personally didn't have an issue with special teams over the last few years, but with the level of competition in the AAC/Big East and the talent Louisville has had, we should have seen much bigger plays in the return game. Just like before, some starters will be used on special teams and the best example of that is seeing Charles Gaines teaming up with Corvin Lamb to return kickoffs. Lamb made it known this fall that he wasn't happy with the claim that Gaines was faster than him. Having your fastest two players returning kicks seems like a no-brainer, but we rarely saw Gaines back deep last year even after he took one to the house against FIU.

James Quick, Kai De La Cruz, and Eli Rogers are all competing for the punt returner spot. Rogers has the surest hands and is the shiftiest of the three. De La Cruz manned the spot when healthy last year but never did much to elicit much confidence. Quick is the most dynamic player that returned punts in practice. He's quick enough to elude a tackler or two, but also fast enough to catch a seam and blow by people. I would be surprised if Rogers and Quick don't get the first shot at the spot.



Roberto Aguayo

When you win the Lou Groza award, you're a safe bet to be a preseason All-American the following year. Aguayo was pretty much automatic last year and I have no reason to believe that he won't be the same this year. Aguayo comes into his sophomore year with a career long of 53 yards.

A.J. Hughes

Hughes is the top returning punter for the team who's special teams prowess has been termed "Beamerball". Hughes was consistent last year though he averaged 6 punts a game for a sometimes lethargic offense. With a new quarterback and an offensive coordinator that doesn't inspire a ton of confidence, that number might be even higher this year.


Niklas Sade

If Sade had more than 31 extra points last year, he might be a little more well known. But, unfortunately he plays for an NCState team that couldn't score a lot of points in a new system last season. There's nothing that shows that that will change in year two, but Sade is consistent, missing only four kicks last year.


Will Monday

His name is Will Monday and he had a 72 yard punt last year. That's enough for me.