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Looking towards 2005: Special teams
Departures: Troy Neinberg
1. Garret Rivas (Jr)
Outlook: Rivas rebounded from a shaky start where he missed four extra points to become a reliable kicker with less-than-optimal range. He very quietly had one of the better season a Michigan kicker has ever had, going 19 for 24 on field goals. Rivas' range is only about 45 yards and he probably won't get the kickoff duties this year either, but a kicker who can make almost 80 percent of his field goals from 45 and in is extremely good in the college game.
For the first time in a long time Michigan fans can be confident when the special teams takes the field to attempt a medium range field goal, and that is good enough for me.
Departures: Adam Finley
1. Zoltan Mesko (Fr)
Outlook: Should be improved. Finley was not very good last year, alternating returnable line drives with booming beauties that landed six yards into the end zone. His stats point to something extremely wrong: he was 18th in gross punting with 42.8 yards a punt. Michigan was 77th(!) in net punting, averaging 34.4 yards. How much of that is on the kicker's shoulders and how much on the other 10 guys on the field? There's no statistical quantification for that. My eyes say that I was rarely confident Michigan would win the battle of field position. Finley drove me crazy.
Mesko got a rare scholarship offer to punt after he showed up at Michigan camp and averaged 48.5 yards a kick and 4.6 seconds hangtime. It's a safe bet that Zoltan will be an improvement when Michigan is kicking from deep in their own end of the field. It remains to be seen whether Mesko has the touch on his short punts to leave them short of the end zone. He certainly can't be any worse.
Mesko will probably also kick off with the graduation of Troy Neinberg. Neinberg's impression of a Pop Warner all-star linebacker will be missed, but he didn't get many touchbacks as a Wolverine and can be replaced.
1. Steve Breaston (R. Jr)
2. Doug Dutch (R. Fr)
3. Grant Mason (Sr)
4. Leon Hall (Jr)
5. Mario Manningham (Fr)
Outlook: I watched the Orange Bowl on ESPN classic the other day. Walter Cross returned kicks. DiAllo Johnson returned punts. I was reminded of those Virginia Slims commericals: "You've come a long way, baby."
Steve Breaston was dinged up most of the year and didn't have the same magic he did as a freshman. A year ago, any returnable punt was accompanied by a buzz of anticipation and often a roar of joy as Breaston caught it and ridiculoused his way down the field. This year, eh, not so much. Breaston's fractured foot and broken finger bothered and slowed him, made him mortal. Even so, Breaston took one back against Northwestern and injury sub Leon Hall did the same against Indiana. Two PR touchdowns and the year was regarded as a bit disappointing. You've come a long way, baby.
Breaston expanded his role to include kickoff returns this year and was good, but not great until the Rose Bowl. Breaston looked healthy. Very healthy. So healthy that he shattered the Rose Bowl record for total yards with 312 by breaking almost every kickoff he touched (and there were a lot of kickoffs) back to about midfield. Breaston is a weapon of mass disbelief. Just pray he stays healthy.
Special teams may actually be a positive next year. Read that sentence again. Seriously. Our kickoff coverage was very good all year with the exception of the Rose Bowl. Opponents averaged less than 20 yards a return (19.6). The NCAA doesn't keep stats for kickoff returns against, but if you slotted 19.6 into the kickoff returns for column, that would be good for 68th. That's above average for us. Yow!
Punt coverage... uh, not so much. Michigan has had problems for years covering punts despite periodically emphasizing it--usually after a special teams collapse costs a game. If Mesko's hangtime is as advertised, however, we may see some 45 yard punts that are fair-caught. Michigan's net punting will probably trend in the right direction even if there are no improvements on the punt coverage.
Garrett Rivas will continue to be very solid from 45 yards and in, which I will take from a college kicker every time. He isn't Kaeding or Nugent, but anyone who remembers the Brabbs/Neinberg/Finley Kicking Disaster Era and shudders should appreciate Rivas' consistency (uh, aside from that weird spate of missed XPs).
And then there's the X factor. Sophomore Steve Breaston was okay. He took a punt back against Northwestern. But freshman Breaston showed up against Texas and reminded us exactly why we were so excited about the guy a year ago. If he returns to 2003 form get the Heisman hype started.
I think Breaston will be closer to his freshman year than his sophomore, though not quite to that level. His freshman year was so good it was probably flukily so. But he's still our best returner since Desmond. Rivas will be accurate but limited. Mesko should be at least okay. Our special teams can be great if three things happen: we get all our punts off, we cover punts better, and we use our superior athletes to get more blocks.
Will those three things happen? Probably not. There will be at least a few moments when the Michigan punt team fails spectacularly. The rest, though, will be solid-to-great.
There's only one thing holding Michigan back next year. Aaaand it's next.