Sans Budzien, Mark, new special teams faces for Northwestern

Sans Budzien, Mark, new special teams faces for Northwestern
August 25, 2014, 3:00 pm
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Vinnie Duber

Northwestern's offense and defense will be full of familiar faces this season, with returning players all over the field.

But it's the third phase of special teams that will have a lot of work to do in replacing key parts.

Most notably, star running back Venric Mark announced his transfer earlier this month. While it's a big blow to the Northwestern offense, it's potentially an even bigger blow to the special teams. Though he missed almost the entirety of last season with injury, Mark was an All-American return man in 2012. His reinsertion into the kick- and punt-return game figured to be a big boost for the Cats.

But he won't be back.

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That opens the door for new playmakers at those positions, and it's wide receiver Miles Shuler who topped the depth chart at both positions Monday.

Shuler will play his first game as a Wildcat in Saturday's season-opener vs. Cal. There's excitement over what he can do after sitting out last year following his transfer from Rutgers. He also was listed as one of the four starters at receiver for Northwestern.

Interestingly, Shuler also is Northwestern's new No. 5, switching his jersey number after Mark's transfer.

"I think he's a guy who has big-play capabilities any time he has his hands on the ball," safety Ibraheim Campbell said Monday. "He's got that kind of speed, and I look forward to seeing him play on Saturday because we haven't been able to see him play in a game. And I'm kind of happy for him because it's been a long time for him to just be practicing and never getting to actually put it out there."

Shuler is at the moment sharing punt-return duties with Campbell, the senior safety who hasn't done much of that task since high school. Still, he's excited for an opportunity to get the ball in his hands.

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But Northwestern will also be breaking in a new kicker after the departure of Jeff Budzien, one of the program's all-time great kickers and a guy many thought was one of the nation's best at his position a year ago.

Pat Fitzgerald announced Monday he's settled on walk-on Jack Mitchell, who is a dual-sport athlete. But he's not one of those soccer-football crossovers you'd expect. He's a baseball player. An outfielder, to be precise. So why is he Northwestern's new kicker?

"He's been the most successful in camp," Fitzgerald said with matter-of-fact a laugh. "He's been close to almost 80 percent in his field goals. That's pretty good, especially considering Kenosha. I wouldn't call that the greenest of pastures from a footing standpoint. I think he's handled it well."

So while the other phases of Northwestern's football team are enjoying a glut of experience, look to special teams to see if some newcomers can make a difference.