Spring appetizers: Special teams

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Who will replace Mike Salerno (above) at kicker for Northern Illinois? (Beck Diefenbach – bdiefenbach@daily-chronicle.com)

Spring practices at Northern Illinois are set to start Tuesday. We'll be taking a look at the Huskies, position group by position group, entering spring football. Today: NIU's special teams.

There are a few questions at special teams entering spring practices for Northern Illinois.

They won't be answered by the end of April.

Mike Salerno, a Lou Groza Award watch list kicker last season is gone (as is Salerno's younger brother Ryan) and two freshmen kickers are on their way in the summer. Tyler Anderson is a punter and kicker, though Josh Wilber would appear to be the front runner at punter for the Huskies.

The one place NIU has answer is kick and punt returner. Tommy Davis took over as the primary kick and punt returner last season and showed enough potential and made enough plays to be named Third Team All--MAC. He averaged 8.0 yards a punt return and 24.1 yards a kick return. He started off the eventual 50-6 Eastern Michigan blowout victory with an 86-yard kickoff return touchdown.

With that, let's take a look at NIU's special teams entering spring practices (projections are mine, not the coaches)...

K projected starter: Up for grabs

In the mix: Alex Faust (Rs. Soph.), Ryan Fillingim (Rs. Jr.)

P projected starter: Josh Wilber (Sr.)

Backups: Ryan Neir (Rs. Soph.)

KR projected starters: Tommy Davis (Rs. Soph.), Ricky Crider (Rs. Sr.)

Backups: Perez Ashford (Soph.), Akeem Daniels (Fr.), Jody Van Laanen (Rs. Soph.), Furqan Muhammad (Rs. Jr.)

PR projected starter: Davis

Backups: Ashford, Crider

Deep snapper: Nolan Owen (Sr.)

Holder: Up for grabs

Fall wildcards: K Mathew Sims (Fr.), P/K Tyler Anderson (Fr.)

What to watch for: NIU has to get better on its net punting, so improvement there will have to come from both the punter and the coverage team. NIU ranked eighth in the MAC and 103rd overall in net punting.

Wilber is healthy and should be able to show off the full potential of his power. Whether or not he's an accurate enough punter is still to be determined and something to keep an eye on this spring.

With Sims and Anderson on the way, what will Faust and Fillingim do with their opportunity?

And now that Davis has a year under his belt, what is the next step in his development? Can he be a game-changer?

2009 highlights: The most memorable special teams play in school history was successfully pulled off with a fake punt run by Justin Anderson to help secure the victory... Salerno proved again why he was the master of the onside kick, with NIU recovering one at Wisconsin to give the Huskies a chance to tie the game i the fourth quarter... Ashford returned a punt 44 yards for a touchdown at Miami (Ohio)... Davis added a 42-yard punt return in that game... Salerno was twice named MAC Specialist of the Week.

2009 lowlights: At best, NIU's special teams were a disaster at Ohio, allowing LaVon Brazill to return a punt 91 yards for a touchdown and Chris Garrett to get a 64-yard kick return on the opening kick...  Everyone remembers Salerno's 42-yard field goal attempt to beat Toledo was blocked, but the final few drives would have been different had his first extra point not been blocked as well... Salerno went wide right on a 25-yard field goal that would have put the Huskies up by three possessions in the fourth quarter.

2010 HuskieWire prediction: Davis takes another step forward and returns a kickoff and a punt for a touchdown and is named Second Team All-MAC or better. A true freshman starts at kicker (the early thinking here is that it will be Sims). Some fans still treat the rugby punt like it's a debate over health care.

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