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Conference USA Preseason Position Previews: Specialists

Who has the best specialists in C-USA?

UTEP v Texas Tech Photo by John E. Moore III/Getty Images

Welcome back to our annual offseason series, Conference USA Preseason Position Reviews. This year will be the sixth installment of the series in which we try to determine who has the best roster in C-USA on paper.

For those who are new, the format is simple. There are three grading categories: “Great Shape,” “Good Shape,” and “We’ll See.”

To elaborate on the grades, “We’ll See” means we have no idea if that position is going to turn out to be a plus due to a lack of proven contributors, questionable depth entering the season or the projected starter is coming in from another school.

“Good Shape” means known commodities are at the position but there’s still room for this unit to improve. Depth is above average to good, with a player or two having the potential to make an appearance on the all-conference team.

“Great Shape” means All-C-USA performers are at this position or there is good-to-great depth across the board.

We’ll be keeping track of the grades as each team will receive points based on the category their position groups were placed in. “Great Shape” will result in three points, “Good Shape” two points, “We’ll See” one point.

At the end of the series, there will be a final tally of which teams appear good enough on paper to contend for the conference title.

Great Shape

UTEP - Senior placekicker Gavin Baechle has a chance to cement his place in the Miners’ record books this season as he leads the program in career PAT percentage, and is well in range for various other all-time records in El Paso. Baechle is joined by returning sophomore Joshua Sloan (ProKick Academy) who did a tremendous job booting balls through the Chihuahuan air in his first year in El Paso.

UNT - Senior kicker Ethan Mooney returns as the Mean Green’s placekicker and kickoff specialist. Mooney has enjoyed a strong career in Denton, earning honorable mention All-CUSA honors last season. UNT also boasts a strong returning punter in senior Bernardo Rodriguez who averaged 44 yards per punt in 2021, a slight increase over his 2020 average which earned him honorable mention All-CUSA accolades.

UTSA - A product of ProKick Academy, senior Lucas Dean returns to San Antonio for his senior season. Dean was a second-team All-CUSA selection in 2021, while his 2020 campaign earned him second-team All-American honors from Sporting News, as well as C-USA Special Teams Player of the Year honors. The Roadrunners lose first-team All-CUSA placekicker Hunter Duplessis, but UTSA brought back a familiar face to fill the gap. After time spent at Arkansas and USF, Jared Sackett has returned to San Antonio after earning Freshman All-American honors as a Roadrunner in 2017.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 03 Central Arkansas at UAB
Kyle Greenwell boots a punt against Central Arkansas
Photo by Michael Wade/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Good Shape

UAB - Punter Kyle Greenwell returns for his senior campaign after posting averages of 42+ yards per punt over the past three seasons. Redshirt junior Matt Quinn will be looking for a return to form in 2022 after seeing his field goal conversion percentage drop by 23% in 2021.

MTSU - Following a highly-decorated high school career and a redshirt season, Zeke Rankin gave Blue Raiders fans a glimpse of the future after leading the team in scoring in 2021. After going 10-14 on field goals in his redshirt freshman, Rankin will seek to develop his range in 2022. The Blue Raiders also return their kicker Kyle Ulbrich who handles both placekicking and kickoff duties and will be a strong plus for MTSU’s special teams unit.

WKU - The Hilltoppers return a solid place kicker in Brayden Narveson and kickoff specialist in Cory Munson but will lose star punter John Haggerty III. They will replace him with another Ozzie punter in Tom Ellard who hails from the prestigious ProKick Academy. Given the track record of ProKick alumni, I’m willing to give Ellard the benefit of the doubt in being up for the task.

FIU - Sophomore Chase Gabriel returns to handle placekicking duties for FIU after a promising but somewhat inconsistent redshirt freshman season. Gabriel has proven his leg strength, converting from 43, 45, and 53 yards out last season. The Panthers’ star punter Tommy Heatherly has made the jump to the NFL as he’s set to begin his first camp with the Miami Dolphins. FIU turned their eyes down south to pluck Jordan Doelling out of the ProKick academy in Melbourne. Doelling should provide an immediate impact.

Louisiana Tech - The Bulldogs will be looking for a new punter this season after Cesar Barajas exhausted his eligibility, however placekicking duties are in good hands with redshirt junior Jacob Barnes back to build on a tremendous start to his career. Barnes has yet to miss a PAT in Ruston and has been successful on an impressive 83% of field goal attempts.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 05 Stanford at Washington
Tim Horn sets up for a kickoff in Husky Stadium
Photo by Jeff Halstead/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

We’ll See

Rice - Charlie Mendes is one of the best young punters in Conference USA and he’s back for what should be another big season in 2022. Christian Vansickle handled placekicking duties in ten games last season but should face competition in camp from Washington transfer Tim Horn who was rated as one of the top kicking recruits in the class of 2019. Horn hasn’t been awarded many field goal attempts thus far in his collegiate career but a change of scenery could provide a spark for the Honolulu native.

Charlotte - Fresh off C-USA All-Freshman honors, 25-year-old Bailey Rice will provide stability at the punter position, but the 49ers do lose legendary place kicker Jonathan Cruz. Will Healy’s squad only had one kicker on his spring roster, but the 49ers did use a scholarship on three star incoming freshman Braeden McAlister.

FAU - Honorable mention all-conference punter Matt Hayball transferred to Vanderbilt, Willie Taggart will look to Australian freshman Riley Thompson and Logan Lupo to take over punting duties. Lupo is a St. Thomas Aquinas product who has transferred back home to Florida from Louisville where he averaged 39 yards per punt through five games in 2020. Dependable placekicker Aaron Shahiari has also left the program over the offseason, leaving Morgan Suarez to handle placekicking duties after hitting two short field goals last season.