UND hopes to break cycle

GRAND FORKS — A year ago, the University of North Dakota had a special teams situation that would make any college football coach squeamish.

The Fighting Hawks started freshmen at kicker, punter and long snapper.

In order to avoid facing that situation every four-year cycle, UND needed to bring in competition among the specialists.

That increased depth, with the help of increased roster size, has been on display during the Fighting Hawks’ 2019 fall camp.

“Our issue over the years has been sheer numbers,” UND special teams coach Shawn Kostich said. “The last three seasons we’ve had four specialists. This year, we’re at five and there’s potential we’ll get to six.”

UND will likely still start the now-sophomore class of kicker Brady Leach, punter Cade Peterson and long snapper Ross Hinders.

But the Hawks are developing depth and future competition for playing time.

Leach, a Moorhead native, was 8-for-12 on field goals. After starting the season 0-for-2 against Mississippi Valley State, Leach finished the year connecting on his last five attempts including a 3-for-3 showing in the season finale against Northern Arizona in which he drilled his season long of 43 yards.

Brady Leach kick

Leach’s issues existed more in a lack of touchbacks on kickoffs and in extra points, where he missed one in four straight games and ended the year 35-for-39.

Of Leach’s eight touchbacks in 2018, all eight came in the final five games of the year.

“We have to get more kicks in the end zone,” Kostich said. “Last year, Brady didn’t have a consistent step pattern. Throughout the spring, we worked with him on getting comfortable with that.”

This year, Leach will be backed up by true freshman Brady Stevens.

Peterson also improved as 2018 unfolded. He had an overall average of 38.8 yards per punt but finished the year with three straight games of 40-yards per punt or better.

This year, he’s being pushed by Wayzata’s Reid Sanders, who was discovered while UND was recruiting high school teammate, tight end Billy Riviere.

“As soon as he came with us, lots of kick coaches said we got a good one,” Kostich said. “He’s got lots to work on, don’t get me wrong but today was his best performance so far and at some point he could challenge Cade.”

At punt and kick returner, UND will be mostly new after the graduation of John Santiago, who handled 80 percent of punts last year and almost 50 percent of kicks.

Kostich said Mikey Griebel is the front-runner for the punt return job, while the kick return job is unsettled. True freshman Luke Skokna, sophomore Cam McKinney, true freshman Chrysten Cochran and senior Evan Holm are among a large group of possible kick returners.