GRAND FORKS, N.D. - Special teams coordinator Josh Kotelnicki is not taking for granted the fact he has a pair of two-year starters returning as his placekicker and punter for a North Dakota team moving into the Big Sky Conference next season.
Junior Zeb Miller (Ankeny, Iowa) earned All-Great West second team honors last season by going 15-of-19 on field goals, including a career-long 54-yarder in the final minutes to Northern Colorado to lift the Sioux over the Bears and a buzzer-beater from 29 yards out in a win over Sioux Falls.
"I was happy for Zeb to watch the progress he made last season from the what he did between his first and second years," Kotelnicki said. "He took a big step forward."
The punter is senior Brett Cameron (Winnipeg, Manitoba), who sits fourth on the UND career list for punting average at 40.0 yards per boot. Cameron's strong right leg provided eight punts of 50 yards or more in 2011 and he also had 18 downed inside the 20-yard line.
"Brett has done some really good things for our program over the years," Kotelnicki added. "It's nice to have both of those guys back for sure."
With those two guys entrenched in their roles, the reserve kickers have gotten extended looks this spring. Senior Tanner Naastad (Grand Forks, N.D.) has yet to attempt a field goal in a regular season game, but he has shown a strong leg and ability to make kicks this spring and throughout his time in the program.
Starting middle linebacker Ben Peters (Chandler, Ariz.) is listed as the back-up punter, but Kotelnicki has two kickers in camp from the state of Texas and one of them is trying to relieve Peters of those duties. That would be freshman Jordan Christianson (Hurst, Texas), who has seen action in both scrimmages thus far along with Cameron.
Placekicker Bobby Gutierrez (Gainesville, Texas) also hails from the Lone Star State and is trying to impress the coaching staff with his placekicking ability.
"All of the kickers have had a decent spring," Kotelnicki said. "We're just trying to get them as many reps as possible to see what they can do."
Of course, there are a lot more components to a special teams than just the players kicking the ball. The Fighting Sioux led the FCS last season with 10 blocked kicks and work on those drills every Wednesda of practice, whether that be in the spring or the fall.
"We don't work on it a lot to be honest," Kotelnicki said. "We have our Block Party drills on Wednesdays and that is really the extent of it. But, our kids believe in it and when you block one, it is a lot easier to block many."
Fighting Sioux fans should look for some familiar faces when it comes to the return game in 2012. Senior Erik Mersereau (Port Washington, Wis.) is back as the primary punt returner after avergaing a Great West best 18.2 ypr last season. He had a 79-yard return for a touchdown at Idaho.
He rotated in and out with sophomore Jer Garman (Marion, Iowa) last season, who averaged 13.0 ypr on two attempts.
"Erik did a great job for us back there last year and Jer is an explosive, shifty, change of direction kid that we rotated in some too," Kotelnicki added.
Those two players will be in the mix to return kickoffs as well along with junior R.J. McGill (Phoenix, Ariz.) as that trio will have to replace senior Dominique Hawkins (Plymouth, Minn.), who returned a lot kicks for the Sioux during his career. In 2011, Hawkins returned 19 kicks for 441 yards (23.2 ypr).
McGill had 14 kickoff returns for 322 yards and the team is also giving sophomore cornerback Daryl Brown (Plymouth, Minn.) an opportunity this spring to show what he can do.
"It's hard to really guage what a guy can do during the spring because we are not going live on punt returns and kickoffs, but we like the group we have at both return spots," Kotelnicki said. "The spring is when they can really work on catching the ball and seeing where lanes might develop as we run through our packages."
The Sioux will have one more practice on Friday at 3:45 p.m. at the Alerus Center before the Green and White Spring Game on Saturday. Kickoff for the annual contest is set for 3 p.m. The North Dakota Tailgate Cook-off Challenge will begin at Noon.
Here is a breakdown of the kicking specialists in spring camp:
8 Tanner Naastad, Sr., PK - Member of team since 2010
11 Zeb Miller, Jr., PK - 15-for-19 on field goals, 31-for-31 PATs
12 Brett Camerson, Sr., P - Averaged 40.2 ypp, 18 inside the 20-yard line
19 Jordan Christianson, Fr., P - Joined team in January
43 Bobby Gutierrez, So., PK - Joined team in January
52 Ben Peters, So., P/LB - Starting middle linebacker
Here is a breakdown of return specialists in spring camp:
2 Jer Garman, So., PR/KR - Averaged 13.0 yards per punt return and 20.2 yards per kickoff return
4 Daryl Brown, So., KR - Did not return any kicks in 2011
5 R.J. McGill, Jr., KR - Averaged 23.0 yards per kickoff return
33 Erik Mersereau, Sr., PR/KR - Averaged 18.2 yards per punt return and 15.8 per kickoff return