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University of North Dakota's special teams will likely face toughest challenge Saturday

GRAND FORKS -- The University of North Dakota football team traditionally wins special teams battles. The program has consistently had all-conference type kickers dating back into the Division II era. This year, UND's specialists have been strong...

GRAND FORKS - The University of North Dakota football team traditionally wins special teams battles.
The program has consistently had all-conference type kickers dating back into the Division II era.
This year, UND’s specialists have been strong again with impressive numbers from kick returner John Santiago (28.8 yards per return), punter Mitch Meindel (44.7 yards per punt) and kicker Reid Taubenheim (11 for 14 on field-goal attempts).
But Saturday against Big Sky Conference foe Northern Colorado, the Bears will enter the 1 p.m. matchup at the Alerus Center with the edge - at least on paper - on special teams.
Northern Colorado, 5-4 overall and 3-3 in the Big Sky, leads the nation in kickoff and punt return yardage.
Punt returner Ellis Onic, a sophomore, averages 24.5 yards per return, which is almost 12 yards better than the Big Sky’s second-best punt returner.
Kick returner Hakeem Deggs only has five kick returns this year, but he’s returned two for a touchdown.
“If I had a choice between a really good blocking unit or two really good returners, I would take the good returners every time,” UND special teams coach Shawn Kostich said. “Those guys have the ability to make two or three guys miss. That’s what those two have done. They’re very explosive. You have to be rock solid in coverage units.”
Deggs and Onic both have two returns for touchdowns this season, which presents a challenge for UND, who has struggled to pin teams deep this year with touchbacks on kicks.
UND has a Big Sky-worst five touchbacks this year. Northern Arizona leads the league with 45.
Taubenheim, an all-conference pick last season, had offseason surgery and is working to regain his kickoff power, Kostich said. The team has toyed with backup Alex MacGregor handling kickoff duties, as well as having Taubenheim lob kickoffs to offset the deep returners.
Also, UND’s punt and kick coverage teams have taken a hit with injuries to UND’s secondary and linebackers.
That combination has led to UND’s standing in the middle of the pack in the Big Sky when it comes to return yards allowed.
“We have to do a good job with kick placement,” Kostich said. “If you don’t hit a good hangtime, it can cost you.”

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