Preview 2011: Special Teams
When you've been blogging almost daily for almost six years you end up writing a bunch of things you regret. Here's a all-timer from last year's special teams preview:
Just don't fumble and we're good. Unless kicker is a black hole, but what's the worst that could happen?
I am so, so sorry. This is the worst that could happen:
That's the best kicker in the country, Nebraska's Alex Henery, and the worst, Michigan's two-headed monster. The whole picture wasn't quite that bad—when not suspended, Will Hagerup was quite good—but the complete inability to kick a field goal overrode all other positives and negatives, casting a pall of total incompetence over the unit. Jeremy Gallon's remarkable knack for doing the exact wrong thing 80% the time and fumbling the other 20% was a significant aid.
But this year we've totally got a new kicker! And far more options in the return game! And Hagerup's back! That's the ticket!
WHAT THE BALLS WHY IS THIS MAN'S PICTURE HERE
Everyone was terribly excited about freshman Matt Wile. He kicked at the Army game. He was not either of the guys responsible for the above graph. Therefore win. Therefore kicker. Therefore 35 yard field goals are feasible.
So of course Brendan Gibbons wins the job. Gibbons made one of four field goals in the first four games last year and biffed an extra point, whereupon he was sat down until the Wisconsin game. He attempted one field goal the rest of the year, that in the Gator Bowl whitewashing. He missed.
The idea of Gibbons hitting the field again gives me hives. At least this time around there's another option, though it's an option that lost out to Brendan Gibbons. Guh.
I always punt on kickers I haven't seen play but the chances Michigan has come up totally incompetent on two straight scholarship guys is low. Either Gibbons has gotten a lot better or they're trying not to put too much on Wile's plate.
There's some case for the former. Last year Rodriguez was claiming field goals were his "biggest concern" on a team starting air at cornerback; Hoke has been much more sanguine. Maybe that's just bravado, but it seems like he's doing better in practice. Kickers are weird. It would be very kicker-y if Gibbons finally got it together.
Predictions? There are no predictions here.
Rating: 3, then 5
Will Hagerup is back. Everyone says he's thundering punts off the top of the practice facility, Zoltan-style. He is also suspended for the first four games of the season. If staying home for last year's Ohio State game was a warning shot across the bow, missing the first four games of this season is an out-and-out broadside. Whatever his issues are it's safe to presume he's on his last strike.
If he manages to get through September without immolating his career, Michigan will have one of those punters color commentators call a "weapon" whenever he strolls onto the field. In Hagerup's case this is almost not hyperbolic. His 72-yard bomb was indisputably the play of the Purdue game:
After a shaky start featuring shanks and a blocked punt Hagerup quickly became one of the country's best. In Big Ten play he averaged 44.0 yards a kick, which would have been good for 19th nationally if sustained over the entire season. He was just a freshman, so it's reasonable to write off the early struggles as nerves and project that Hagerup will at least match those numbers when he's not suspended. Improvement is likely, and that takes him into the top ten nationally.
But he is suspended for the nonconference season. It appears that Wile will take his place. Some guy named Tom hit up his high school coach for his stats in that department:
Here are Wile's stats from his senior, junior, and sophomore years as a punter:
Year Punts Yards Average Long Inside 20 2010 40 1447 36.18 54 13 2009 31 1247 40.23 61 6 2008 16 586 36.63 54 6
Here is a video of him in 2010 at a kicking camp. He kicks five balls and averages 51.2 yards. Probably the most recent data of his abilities. He was also the punter during the Army All American game.
The dip as a senior is a little bothersome but the surge in balls inside the twenty means he was doing a lot more punting on a short field. Hitting 38 or 40 on a regular basis is a downgrade from Hagerup but one Michigan will live with. More problematic is the possibility Wile did not win the kicking job because he's already slated to kick off and punt the first few games.
Kickoffs and Return Units
This was miserable last year and one of the main perpetrators of the misery, Jeremy Gallon, is back as the punt returner. This is inexplicable to me:
Jeremy Gallon special teams error limit: determined. It is ten billion. I'm obviously on the tolerant side of the scale when it comes to coaching errors (outside of obvious game theory errors, about which I have an Al Qaeda level of zealotry) but JESUS GOD RICH RODRIGUEZ WHY DID YOU LET JEREMY GALLON RETURN KICKS AND PUNTS FOR TEN GAMES.
Gallon must be Steve Breaston in practice or something because he's held onto a job he's been terrible at through six million fumbles and a coaching change. Maybe he's better now. If he's not maybe they'll finally let Dileo return stuff. A change can't take as long as it did last year.
The other major issue in this department was (again) the kickers. Gibbons and Broekhuizen couldn't get kickoffs anywhere near the endzone and when Hagerup was deputized midway through the year he wasn't much better. Wile grabbed that job as soon as he showed up so improvement is expected here.
How much does this matter? After the Illinois game I pinged Brian Fremeau for advanced metrics on the special teams and he got back to me with numbers that said Michigan was well below average on kickoffs both ways, but had top-tier punting and only slightly below average punt returns. By that point in the season those four forces had combined to cost Michigan about a touchdown. I think that's low since Fremeau's numbers don't account for the field position Gallon gave up by letting punts roll all over the place*; add in a few more games and Michigan probably gave away two touchdowns of field postion over the course of the season. That's pretty significant.
Can a special teams coach fix this? Eh. One of the takeaways from the punting demo was the personnel: starters everywhere, lots of skill position guys. They'll head towards average because of that, reversion to the mean, and Wile.
Gallon and the kick returners? Ask again later. I'm not expecting miracles. Just HOLD ON TO THE DAMN BALL.
*[I assume so, anyway. I don't know how you'd even begin trying to account for that.]