Just don't fumble and we're good. Unless kicker is a black hole, but what's the worst that could happen?
After a spring in which the motley collection of walk-ons assembled to punt managed to keep just one of their attempts on the field of play, it was a relief to see Will Hagerup launch Zoltan-like bombs in the fall scrimmage. While he's likely to go through some growing pains as he adjusts to college, mgouser Wonk put together a diary demonstrating that punter is a spot at which you can throw in a true freshman without much worry. A three-year study of freshman punters sees them land around 73rd nationally—just a smidgen below average—with a 39.3 net.
So your average freshman punter checks in just below average, and Hagerup is not your average freshman punter. He got the rare third star from Rivals and is their #1 true punter after a senior year in which he actually bettered Zoltan's numbers:
As a senior, Hagerup punted 22 times, landing seven within the opponent's 20-yard line, and averaging 42.9 yards per attempt. By comparison, Mesko had a career average of 42.5. In a statistic suggesting Hagerup applies adequate hang time to be a factor at the college level, opponents averaged just three yards per return against him.
No word on awesome high-stepping fakes, or disastrous mind-meltdown ones. Rodriguez called Hagerup "a real talent" this fall, then repeated it for emphasis. I'm not saying he's the Space Emperor of Space or anything, but while no one can replace Zoltan in our hearts Hagerup probably won't be far off on the field.
As per tradition when this site attempts to project a kicker it's never seen play, we punt. (HA!) Projecting kickers remains a rube's game. For example, last year this preview expressed "disquiet" because projected starter Jason Olesnavage couldn't beat out mediocre competition in '08, sucked in the spring game, and wasn't the touted freshman Brendan Gibbons. Olesnavage proceeded to go 11 of 15, a 73% strike rate. So we won't really have a grasp on what's going on here until midseason.
Right now the tea leaves are grim things scattered everywhere except the center of the cup, however. Rodriguez has been openly fretting about the situation since spring. An example from Big Ten media days—here Rodriguez is asked what's his biggest concern:
"Probably the kicking game, particularly field goals."
Troy Woolfolk's ankle had not yet been smitten, but even at that point being more concerned with anything other than the secondary (which thankfully finished second) sets off alarm klaxons. More go off when AnnArbor.com quotes Rodriguez saying "guh," which is my line.
But I was pretty guh last year, too, and that worked out okay. Hopefully Gibbons can find the accuracy to live up to his scholarship status; if he can't the silver lining is that Michigan might be forced into correct fourth-down strategy. That's the ticket!
Michigan found its best kickoff returner since Steve Breaston in the form of blazing fast Darryl Stonum last year. Stonum ripped off this critical touchdown against Notre Dame…
…and took enough other kicksout to midfield to see Michigan into the top 25 nationally at #23. Stonum himself was actually better than that; his 25.7 yard average would have been good for 4th if he took back all of Michigan's returns.
Touchdowns are outliers and we should expect Stonum's production to fall back to earth a little bit this year; hopefully Michigan has a better second option and can maintain their above-average production here.
When it comes to punts,
HOLD ON TO THE GODDAMN BALL
was the directive last year. It was not followed very well. This was actually an improvement on 2008, when kickoffs were also 50-50 to be horrible turnovers, but it wasn't very fun. A rotating array of jelly-fingered receivers toured the position last year, with Junior Hemingway's 10 returns for 86 yards and Martavious Odoms's 6 for 54 leading the returning players. (Brandon Graham's punt blocks actually made him Michigan's best punt returner: two for 36 yards and a TD.)
This year it looks like Hemingway has been relieved of duties. The four guys in contention this fall are Odoms, Terrence Robinson, Jeremy Gallon, and Drew Dileo. Gallon reputedly did not seize his opportunity to perform over the summer* and then suffered an ankle injury in fall, Robinson's hands have plagued him since his arrival in Ann Arbor (he was the only player to fumble a punt in the fall scrimmage), and Dileo is a true freshman. Your punt returner by default is Odoms until such time as one of the guys who isn't a fumble-prone starting receiver steps up and takes it from him.
I suppose here's where we should make mention of Michigan's coverage units. A combination of Zoltan and the spread punt formation made the punt cover guys highly effective, with opponents managing just 5.6 yards a return. I put together a little stat that measures how many yards a team gives back on average (so a punt without a return is zero) and Michigan finished 28th last year despite Zoltan finishing 9th in gross average. That's pretty good; Michigan can probably expect similar.
On kick returns, opponents averaged 22.3 per, which was slightly below average. Stonum's Beanie Bowl-opening KOR TD and some disturbing half-speed practice returns in the fall scrimmage have people worried, but that's scant evidence to suggest last year's kickoff team, which returns largely intact, is going to fall off a cliff.
with all the hubub about Will Campbell being a potential bust, no one has noticed that Gallon hasn't exactly lived up to his recruiting hype. here's hoping he sheds that label in punt/kick returns and elsewhere.
We're even on the +/- and should be staying in positive territory from now on.
Life should not be a journey to the grave to arrive safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming "Wow! What A Ride!" HST
"This is a program in transition, this is a program that's going back to hard-nosed, big-boy football," Brandon said. "We're in the process of putting the pieces in place to afford us to do that consistently and effectively.
would there ever be a strategy that would always be full bore go for the block? Or would this be just as risky with possibilities of roughing the kicker? I just haven't seen anyone close to having Breaston like skills on punts, and since a lot of punts end up as fair catches, and the way punts tend to bounce any which way, it almost seems like the possible gains don't make it worth it to risk a possible turn over. Or maybe I am just being cinical after wasting some of our key defensive stops the last 2 years with muffed punts.
"Be excellent to each other and...party on dudes!." -Abraham Lincoln
3 is a small number and doesn't add nearly as fast as 7s and 8s do, so having a player who hits them well isn't necessarily a good thing if it tempts you to go for 3 when you might be better off holding out for 7.
And at this level, few teams attempt as many as two per game. Leigh Tiffin led I-A players last year with 30, which sounds impressive until you remember he played 14 games. Yeah, there will be the occasional close game where you might look back at a field-goal attempt and wish it were successful, but there are likely a number of other plays that also went awry that could have made more of a difference.
I am more concerned about kickoffs than field goals. Good distance, good coverage, make the other team work for points.
The #1 thing you want from your punt returner is to HOLD ON TO THE DAMN BALL! Every football team has their most sure-handed player as the primary punt returner. And that is sure-handed in fielding punts, which are different than passes and kickoffs. The ball spin and trajectory (both absolute and relative to the receiver) are different for all 3. Speed, elusiveness, and reading the blocking are all bonuses. You get that very special returner about once a decade (AC, Desmond, Woodson, Stevie). We have that guy, but he's playing QB.
Martavius is Micro Rage when it comes to blocking!
One thing I've been very pleased with is the various types of punts Michigan now executes: directional, coffin corner, etc. One of my biggest frustrations under the Carr regime was, if you needed a 60-yard boomer straight down the field, you got a 60-yard boomer straight down the field, and if you needed a 30-yard coffin corner, you got a 60-yard boomer straight down the field.
Zoltan is only the 2nd-coolest kicker/punter name of all time...witness Ali Hadji-Shiekh!
You could argue that with all the spread punting formations in use, sure-handedness has become even more important in a returner. Someone, I think it was Brian on fanhouse, ran the numbers last year and saw a fairly significant decline in punt return yardage with the advent of spread punting formations. This means both that returners likely have less time to recover a muffed punt on their own and that the marginal reward of a dynamic, yet unreliable, returner is not worth the potential risk of a lost fumble.
Glad to have another boomer back there as punter, only hope we can get those field goals between the uprights ... we've got enough to worry about other than special teams.
“How much does a man got to get humbled? Got humbled last year, been humbled before and will be humbled again. When you get in this profession there’s enough humility to go around for everybody. I’m tired of being humbled,”
Historically, we've had some luck with both. in 1979 Anthony Carter had great success returning punts as a freshman. (Yes, it's true that he was Anthony Carter, but he was still a freshman and didn't make any mistakes fielding punts.)
In 1980, freshman Don Bracken punted quite successfully after a disastrous 1979 season. In the Rose Bowl he had a 73 yard punt, which at the time was a record.
Stonum actually had the 2nd best kick return season in Michigan history behind Steve Breaston in 2005.
His 25.7 yards per return was second to Breaston's 28.1 yards per return. Desmond Howard (twice) and Anthony Carter (once) posted better y/r and Derrick Alexander matched Stonum's, but stonum did it on a whopping 39 returns (thanks, defense!), while none of those four performances topped 20 attempts, and only one topped 15 attempts. The # of attempts is relevent, clearly, as it gives disproportionate weight to 90+ yard TD returns that those guys had, compared to Stonum have having 38 other attempts to drag down his average from the 90+ return he had.
What I'm saying - Stonum is a really good kick returner.
I'm actually hoping Drew Dileo becomes our punt returner this year. All the other guys on the list have had fumbling problems on punt returns so why not give him a shot? As long as he can just catch the ball I'm good with that.