Few returning for Tech return teams

HOUGHTON – The Michigan Tech football team returns all its kickers and punters, but it’ll start from scratch in the return game.

The winter weather hasn’t been kind to special teams practice this “spring,” but the Huskies generally only practice basic punt and kick coverages and protection schemes during the spring anyways, while experimenting a bit with the punt return game. Most battles will likely carry into the fall, including the ongoing competition between kickers Garrett Mead and Matt Bautch.

They both came in as freshmen in 2011, but Bautch’s eligibility was saved for an extra year through a redshirt. Mead has started all 21 games the past two years, making 7 of 11 field goals in 2011 and 3 of 3 last year. He made 36 of 39 point-after attempts in 2011 and 44 of 49 last fall.

Bautch appeared in two games last year, missing his only extra point attempt and kicking off three times. While it was a small sample size, his 59-yard kickoff average was almost identical to Mead’s 58.8-yard average over 60 kickoffs.

“Bautch and Mead, that’s a pretty close contest,” Tech coach Tom Kearly said. “Garrett had the job, and has not lost it; Matt has not beat him out. We feel that will be good competition in the fall. We’ve opened up the process for Matt to

have an opportunity.”

One of the reasons Mead initially won the job was his 3-4 yard distance advantage and higher trajectory compared to Bautch when Tech first measured them out. Kearly said, though, that Bautch has done really well in the weight room and is making a strong push.

The punting job is more solidified, with will-be senior Jordan Ledvina keeping the job. Ryan VanGoethem, who will be a sophomore this fall, will have his chance in the future. Tech also is confident in returning long snapper Spencer Firlik.

Ledvina punted 45 times last year for a 36.6-yard average – 12th in the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference – with a long of 53 yards. He pinned 14 inside the 20-yard line.

As far as the return game, even though Kearly said he “would not be surprised if in five years there will not be kick returns,” the team still has to fill the void left by three graduating seniors for this fall.

“We did take a hit a little bit in that we have to replenish our return game a little bit,” Kearly said. “With (Alex) Elsenheimer and (Ethan) Shaver and (Akeem) Cason, we lost three guys who can return punts and kicks.”

Currently, last year’s back-up punt returner Brett Gervais, a Lake Linen-Hubbell alum, is penciled in as the primary punt returner. The kick returner isn’t even on the radar to address until this fall when several current wide receivers and maybe even some incoming freshmen could have a shot at it. Because the kickoff line has been moved up, there are also significantly fewer kickoffs to be concerned with.

“(Kick returner) is something you can find in one practice in the fall. You get a kid that can go zoom and put him in there. That doesn’t take long to find,” Kearly said. “Punt returner, that takes a little more intestinal fortitude because you can get splattered. Kick return you might get hit, but you can see it coming. You have all day to catch it, make a decision to come out.”

Editor’s note: This special teams feature is the fourth in an eight-part series breaking down the Michigan Tech football team position by position leading to next Saturday’s annual spring game at Sherman Field. Wednesday looked at the defensive line, Thursday at Tech’s linebackers and Friday at the secondary. Next week Tuesday through Friday will break down the offense.