The Big Ten’s a punting conference. Always has been. Always will be. And in 2017, we get to watch a bumper crop of great punters, maybe the best class in thirty years. If you call yourself a Big Ten football fan but can’t get excited about that, you can just fuck right off.
We hear constant talk of field position, yet punters, the vital specialists responsible for flipping the field and pinning an opponent, are often ridiculed. I’m sick of the reflexive macho bullshit about punters not being real football players. Big Ten punters are among the most important weapons on their teams. They deserve to be recognized.
So let’s meet our contestants, the strongest batch of Big Ten punters in my lifetime:
The Established Stars
Blake Gillikin, SO, Penn State
Blake Gillikin is one of the best players in the Big Ten, no caveat. The Georgia native can do filthy things with his foot. He was the best freshman punter in the country last year, had a huge Rose Bowl, and is now a preseason favorite for the Ray Guy Award.
When I rewatched Penn State’s comeback win over Ohio State, a Gillikin play stood out, and not a punt. Down 12 in the 3rd quarter, Penn State was punting and the snap went over Gillikin’s head, into Penn State’s endzone. The freshman outsprinted the onrushing Buckeyes and covered the ball for a safety to keep it a two possession game.
Get ready for one of the best Big Ten punting seasons you’ve ever seen.
Fake potential: High. Gillikin can do it all.
Jake Hartbreaker, JR, Michigan State
Hartbreaker is the preseason media pick for most attractive punter in the Big Ten for a second straight year. He’s rocketed to the top of FlockU.com’s hottest college athletes compendium. Concussions aside, guys like Hartbreaker are an argument for doing away with helmets.
Hartbreaker exploded onto the scene in 2015 with a big rookie year, then, like everything associated with Michigan State, had a disappointing 2016 (his looks did not diminish however). Now in year three, this could be a breakout season for one of the most talented, toned, nicely tanned legs in the conference.
Fake potential: Guaranteed. Running fake kicks is a drug to Mark Dantonio and the euphoric high from the suspense before the snap is one of the greatest joys in his life. It’s so strong, it gave him a heart attack after the epic 2010 game winning fake field goal in overtime to beat Notre Dame. The doctors told him: Coach, no more fakes, you line up to punt, you gotta punt. Any fake you call may be your last. Dantonio touched his wife’s hand, nodded his head, and told the doctors his faking days were done. But it was a fake! He continues to call fakes to this day, defying death in order to truly live. He successfully ran a fake punt last year against Ohio State, and I have a feeling it may be time for another fake against Brian Kelly and Notre Dame.
Joe Schopper, JR, Purdue
Schopper, an Indianapolis native, was the backbone of 4 straight state championship teams at powerhouse Cathedral, where fans described his lofting boots as being like the arched back of a cat at the sight of a spider. Purdue fans aren’t comfortable with figurative language and prefer to describe Schopper’s kicks as parabolas with the formula y = -x2 +3. Whichever way you see it, Schopper earned Honorable Mention All-Big Ten honors as a sophomore last season and stands at the cusp of greatness entering his third year.
Fake potential: High. He threw a TD on a fake field goal in a scrimmage last year and is dying to use his big arm in a real game this fall.
Hunter Niswander, SR, Northwestern
Niswander is a 6’5, 235 pound boomer who’s been popping up on preseason watchlists. He finished 4th in the Big Ten in distance last year. A huge senior season would surprise no one.
Fake potential: High. Niswander has been working on every facet of his game, including taking drama classes in preparation for a potential fake punt.
Ryan Santoso, SR, Minnesota
Santoso, a 6’6, 250 pound kicking goliath, is the Big Ten kicker I most want to see make a tackle in the open field, now that Joey Julius is gone. The senior was a good placekicker as a freshman and sophomore and then moved to punter last year, where he finished 2nd in attempts and 6th in distance. Santoso improved markedly in his second year as a placekicker and I expect him to do the same as a punter and emerge as one of the league’s best.
Fake potential: High. As a placekicker, Santoso ran a fake extra point against Purdue in 2014, but the big man got stuffed. He’s waited 3 long years for another chance; he’s dying to fake one.
The Up and Comers
Joseph Gedeon, SO, Indiana
Joseph Gedeon is the best athlete on this list, and one of the best on the Hoosiers. The 6’3 sophomore can dunk a basketball, run a 4.4 40, and was one of the best hurdlers in Indiana.
Look at him jump!
What's the worst thing that could happen? pic.twitter.com/zL2btieKGU
— Joseph Gedeon (@ChoccoBoomStick) April 26, 2016
Gedeon came to punting relatively recently, so there’s no telling how high his ceiling might be.
Fake potential: As high as the dude jumps.
Wade Lees, SO, Maryland
At 28, Aussie Wade Lees is the second oldest player in the FBS. A high school dropout, Lees was working construction in Australia at 25 before attending a punting academy. He’s seen and heard more in his days than the other names on this list. He grew up without a cell phone. He has the perspective on life it takes to be a great punter. The leg will follow.
Fake potential: High. Lees has stared into the void of life and not blinked. A fake punt is nothing to him.
Caleb Lightbourn, SO, Nebraska
As a freshman, Lightbourn suffered the shock of having his second career punt blocked by Fresno State. Showing laudable composure, he went on to win Big Ten Freshman of the Week in a victory over Oregon, pinning his last three of five punts inside the 20. Brady Hoke, single-season defensive coordinator at Oregon, was said to have remarked, “Well, he’s got a leg and that.”
On the year, Lightbourn averaged 39.7 yards per kick, which would have been 40.2 had it not been for this net-negative punt against Minnesota.
Little-known fact: Eager to wring every dollar out of Lightbourn’s talent, the Huskers Athletic Department has ruled that video of the sophomore punter solving a Rubik’s Cube is premium content. But pay up — it’s worth it!
Fake potential: Extremely high. In an early game last year, Lightbourn scrambled for an impromptu (and unsuccessful) fake, much to the confusion of those present: “While fans originally thought the coaches had called a trick play, they were quick to point out afterwards that was all on Lightbourn.” Having felt the rush of endorphins that accompanies the fake, Lightbourn will be eager to redeem last year’s gaffe with a stunning and highly successful conversion, possibly with the game on the line. Vegas prognosticators have that early Oregon game circled for a debut.
Michael Cintron or Ryan Anderson, Rutgers
When it comes to punting, Rutgers is where the action is. Last year, Michael Cintron led the league in attempts and yards, and it wasn’t close. Against Michigan, he punted 16 times for 603 yards, just absurd. But this year it appears he has competition for the job from Olivet College transfer Ryan Anderson. Whoever wins that battle is likely to be one of the most active punters in America once again.
Fake potential: High. What do they have to lose?
Anthony Lotti, SO, Wisconsin
Lotti, an Aussie-style punter out of Georgia, won the Badgers starting job as a true freshman last year and showed a penchant for precision, pinning opponents inside the 20 on 25 occasions. He was never blocked. Distance was a concern; Lotti’s ceiling is as high as his kicks will be long. Here he is hitting the Jerrytron and taking a victory lap during Cotton Bowl practice last year:
— Maverick (@AnthonyLotti15) December 30, 2016
Fake Potential: High. One of these times, Lotti’s going to roll out and just keep rolling.
The Heralded Newcomers
Dru Chrisman, FR, Ohio State
Chrisman is replacing one of the best punters in Ohio State history in Cameron Johnston, a Ray Guy finalist last year. But Chrisman, a Cincinnati La Salle product, was the #1 punter in the 2016 class. Kid can really boot it:
Fake potential: High. Chrisman enjoys playing practical jokes.
Brad Robbins, FR, Michigan
Like Ohio State, Michigan is replacing a star in Kenny Allen. Also like Ohio State, Michigan has a #1 punting prospect. Brad Robbins is the top punter for 2017 and looks to start right away. This could be the beginning of an entertaining 4 year rivalry between Robbins and Chrisman.
Fake potential: Highbaugh.
Ryan Gersonde, FR, Iowa
The highly touted Australian is a left footer, a rarity in the punting biz.
Fake potential: Low. Kirk Ferentz isn’t trying to disrespect anyone.
Blake Hayes, Bryce Baringer, or Ryan Tucker, Illinois
Hayes is another Aussie lefty and yet another massive punter at 6’6, 220. Bryce Baringer is a freshman walk-on with only slightly more than a year of high-school experience. Ryan Tucker is the grizzled third-year veteran with good genes–his father was an eighth-round NBA draft pick–but no career kicks.
Fake potential: Low. They’re still trying to figure out how to real.