NEW YORK—This is the eighth part of a preseason series previewing each of the 2017 Columbia Football position groups. For our next position group preview, we take a look at Columbia’s special teams in 2017.
As Columbia completes its final two practices of its 2017 preseason training camp, here is a look at what fans might expect from the Lions’ special team’s units upon heading into game week. Special teams proved to be a team strength last year as the Lions ranked among national leaders in several categories including net punting (No. 18, 37.66), kick return defense (No. 12, 17.33), fewest blocked kicks allowed (No. 15, 1.0) and most blocked punts (No. 8, 2.0).
“We did a nice job overall as a unit last year in all the phases,” Special Teams Coordinator Justin Stovall said. “We accomplished what we wanted to accomplish. Where we’ve made the most improvement is in the fact that we’ve brought in a variety of better athletes and now we are deeper on the special team’s depth chart. Our players running down on kick coverage are great. On kickoff returns last year we were limited; we looked to Josh Wainwright as our one option, but now we have a couple of guys with speed who have that explosiveness that you want.”
Stovall returns a host of key specialists from last year’s roster. Unanimous First Team All-Ivy League selection and sophomore Oren Milstein returns as Columbia’s placekicker after a breakout 2016 season. Last year, Milstein converted 12 of 13 field goals and finished a perfect 16-16 on point after attempts. A candidate for the Fred Mitchell Award (national placekicker of the year), Milstein ranked among national leaders in both field goal percentage (No. 2 at .923) and field goals per game (No. 15 at 1.23), while leading the Ivy League in field goals (12), field goal percentage (.923) and placing second in kick scoring (5.7 ppg.). He also led the Lions in scoring (52 points) and kicked two clutch game-winning field goals in wins over Wagner and Dartmouth. A two-time Ivy League Special Teams Player of the Week and Rookie of the Week dual honoree, Milstein also set school records for most field goals made (5 at Wagner, Oct. 8), and most kick scoring points scored in a game (15 at Wagner, Oct. 8).
Junior kickoff specialist Chris Alleyne returns to the squad after a successful 2016 season. Alleyne registered 27 touchbacks in 35 total kickoffs for a phenomenal 77.1 percent rate. Junior Noah Zgrablich, who was injured in 2016, hit 14 kickoffs for 776 yards in 2015.
At punter, Columbia lost two stellar senior graduates in Cameron Nizialek and Matthew Panton. Both are playing a fifth year of college football and starting as punters at respective SEC schools Georgia and Kentucky. An All-Ivy League Second Team punter, Nizialek led the conference in punting at 44.8 yards per punt average (34-1,524) and booted 25 punts of 50 yards or more. In addition, Panton played a key role in placement punts as he averaged 40.5 yards per punt (42-1,703) and placed 17 punts inside the opponents’ 20-yard line. Replacing that duo will difficult but Columbia has a host of talented punters on the roster including senior Parker Thome, Alleyne, Zgrablich and first-year Drew Schmid. Thome is the starter heading into the season.
Junior Patrick Eby returns for his third year at Columbia as its long snapper. Senior Bailey Popeck and offensive lineman Bewley Wales both return as backup long snappers. At holder, Columbia returns Thome who served as Columbia’s backup holder in 2016.
“We have great legs in the kicking game,” Stovall said. “Oren was so accurate last year, he was basically throwing darts at the uprights. With Chris Alleyne kicking the ball and touchbacks, that’s the expectation for him. Our punter Parker Thome hasn’t played much but he’s got a good leg and will help us in the field position game. Patrick Eby is an elite long snapper and he does a great job as our short snapper.”
Columbia also returns its top two return men in sophomores Lynnard Rose and Josh Wainwright. As a running back, Rose was primarily the Lions’ No. 1 kickoff returner and No. 2 punt returner. He returned 12 kickoffs for 219 yards (18.2 average) with a long of 27 and eight punts for 57 yards (7.1 average) with a long of 31 yards. As a wide receiver, Wainwright also served as the Lions’ No. 1 punt returner and No. 2 kickoff returner in 2016. He ended up leading the team with 277 total return yards and ranked second in all-purpose yardage (800). He led the team in punt returns (14-104) for a 7.4 average and ranked second on the squad in kick returns (8-173) with a 21.6 average. He also had a 54-yard kickoff return. Sophomore Tanner Thomas also saw action returning kicks (7-130 yards).
First-year defensive back Will Allen, along with several other newcomers, will also play a key role on returns.