Neck Sharpies: The Power Return

Submitted by Seth on October 13th, 2015 at 1:46 PM

On Saturday Michigan put up six points on Northwestern on the opening kickoff, a lead the defense was so unlikely to relinquish you might as well say this game was decided by a footrace between Jehu Chesson and the Wildcats' kicker. As Harbaugh described it in the presser:

“106-yard return. The blocks were sharp and crisp. Timing was nearly perfect. 10 guys, 11 guys hustling and 10 of them blocking, blocking for Jehu and he got- he is the fastest player on the team. I know Jabrill said one of the fastest but he is the fastest, and he showed it today.”

And our own Adam Schnepp got Butt on the record after yesterday's presser:

They hadn't really shown that on film where they were going to kick it there on the opening drive, but we knew they could potentially sky-kick it away from Jabrill and they did that to Jehu. We had the right return in anyway, so they kind of just gave us a counter. I had a kickout block and then we had like a wall built for Jehu. I mean, Jehu's a 10.3 100 guy. He just did the rest. You weren't catching him once he hit the open field.

I was still drawing it up when ebv posted an excellent writeup of the same. So at this point you might be sick of talking about it.


I'll use some of his diagrams, and show you what happened.

Our Playcall: Return (our) Right

Here's how ebv made it look:


Butt (on the 20 yard line)'s block is a kickout, not a lead but that's an otherwise very accurate description. Here's my drawing:


(kickoff coverage positions noted as left or right from the kicker, so e.g. "L4" is the fourth guy to the kicker's left.)

Omigod it's POWER—like manball-flavored power running where you form a wall that caves in on their wall, kick out the EMLOS to make a gap, then throw bodies at the point of attack. I color-coded the goals of the blocks: left for seal the guy inside, green for kickout, and blue for the lead blockers.

Wilson, Kinnel, Gedeon and Houma are going to form the "wall"—they each identify a gunner and their jobs are to block down, and keep their guys sealed from the play. Bolden and Poggi double a guy who's basically the playside end. Butt comes across the formation to blow the contain open, and Chesson gets an escort into the hole from Mason and Peppers.

Northwestern's Playcall: Corner (their) Right


This is a fairly basic kickoff coverage that only messes a little with the typical man-to-man return strategy. The kicker purposely sent it to the side away from Peppers, and the gunners were tasked with closing down running lanes. Two members of the coverage team, L5 and the kicker, are back as quasi-safeties to fill any lane that may be created.

[after the jump: execution]

Here's the whole thing:


And that again fast-forwarded to the point of the catch.


You may want to click to make these big because it gets kinda confusing (especially the screengrab since a couple of guys are off screen). Let's go over how each of the 11 Northwestern players was accounted for. Plusses and minuses are not UFR+/- but guys accounted for/lost.

R4 and R5 (unblocked): The gunners at the top of the screen. R4 came down the numbers and tried to cut Chesson off at the 10. R5 smartly saw Butt "pulling" and changed his direction to cut Chesson off before he could get in the hole. Chesson(+2) is just too fast for both of these guys.

R3, R2, R1, L1, and L2 (blocked down): This is Braveheart collision at the 25 yard line. Wilson(+2) absorbed R3 with authority, escorted him to the 15, and shoved him to the ground, where he is now detritus that obstructs R1, the guy Gedeon(-1) lost. Gedeon also set up a few yards upfield of Kinnel (+1), who used the extra space to catch R2 and seal. Next to this is Houma(+1) who hunted L1 all the way down the field and textbook seals, then remains in contact long enough for the play to go by. The last guy is Wormley(+1) whacking a surprised L2 from midfield past the hash. That guy helped by fighting to the wrong side when Wormley almost overran him; then he's paste.

L3: Bolden(-0.5) and Poggi(-0.5) are tasked with sealing this guy, since it's his lane Michigan is running into. They lost him, which used up Peppers(+1)'s lead block.

From ebv's thing:

3) Cole latches on and Peppers is getting ready to hit Northwestern's safety who escaped the double (circled). Chesson arcs away from one unblocked player who picked his way across the field behind the wall...

L5: This guy was the left safety. He cut inside of the other guys and came down the middle of the field. His job is to get into any lane that forms. He wound up meeting the first lead blocker, Mason Cole(+1), who just knocks the poor kid down (and into the chasing Poggi, who pancakes).

K: The other safety who came down the (his) right hash then turned and gave chase. Bolden(-1) was in position to hamper that guy…


…and doesn't. That may be a bit rough since he did get some hand-fighting in. Anyway Chesson(+1) outruns him too. Diagrammed:



Remember blocking guys in space is hard. Poggi, Bolden, and Gedeon lost battles that were won back by a few heroes, specifically Wilson's backside block that was so badass it took out Gedeon's guy, and Chesson being really really really fast. Peppers, Cole, Kinnel, Houma, and Butt all got excellent blocks, and Wormley got one too thanks to a Northwestern guy's derf. Special thanks to the Big Ten refs for not blowing it—the Wilson block was clean but also the kind that attracts flags all too often.

The play design had a lot to do with those blocks since the Wildcats were getting hit from unexpected angles and sealed in places they didn't expect to be. Cole and Peppers both did very well with their lead blocks, even if the latter was cleaning up after Bolden and Poggi.

The good news is this was way more Michigan players being good than problems with Northwestern's coverage. The bad news is Michigan only gets to run one kickoff a game. For a 2015 definition of bad news that is.



October 13th, 2015 at 2:01 PM ^

I didn't realize we use so many starters on special teams outside of Peppers and Chesson.   I guess Houma, Poggi, Bolden kinda make sense, especially since Bolden is getting less snaps at LB.   But Wormley, Cole, Butt and Wilson?? 


October 13th, 2015 at 2:50 PM ^

The two who really surprised me were Cole and Wormley. Wormley because D-linemen are not asked to block very often. He came in from the numbers to the middle of the field to make his block, which shows his athleticism. Cole retreated to the far hash at the 15 then ran almost 15 yards up field to the near hash to make his block. That is a lot of ground to cover, not many OL players can make that play. Way to go Cole!

Great scheme, great coaching, and great execution!


October 13th, 2015 at 4:04 PM ^

That Baxter's a proponent of using your first-team/rotation players on special teams, since they can swing a game so wildly on something like this play or a blocked punt.

Chris Kluwe had a piece in SI recently talking about how one of the biggest determinants for whether or not a NFL special teams unit will suck is whether it's full of backup offensive players who don't know how to pursue and hit anybody.

Space Coyote

October 13th, 2015 at 2:28 PM ^

Most of this is man blocking, in that each blocker knows which man he has to block based on his release at the kick (note: the positions don't remain static based on pre-snap, you have to change based on the looping nature of the paths after the kick, which is why kicking units loop and twist and all that). A lot of the time people think on kick return you are blocking zone, and some teams do in some ways, but this has it so that specific players need to block specific defenders. So Michigan knows the two left-most guys are going unblocked. Wilson is going to have whoever the next inside is (whoever becomes R3), followed by Kinnel (R2), then Gedeon (R1), then Houma (L1), then Wormley (L2); all those guys have man blocks. They are helped with these blocks based on tendency (who is a safety, who is a gunner, etc.).

Then you have the other blocks. Butt is going to kick the outer most guy, that can be a single block because that guy's job is literally "don't let anyone outside of you". L5 loops into a safety position, so the outer most guy is L4. The double then comes on the man who is supposed to fill the lane one inside (L3). That is to ensure that you open up a run lane on one side of him, depending on where the safety (L5) fills.

Then, Cole and Peppers are supposed to account for the first off-color that flashes. Nominally, that's one of the two safeties and everyone on the front side is blocked up, but it's very difficult to sustain these blocks in the open field, so typically it is before that. Cole sees the Left Safety and pops him. Peppers is working up field when an opponent flashes and he takes care of him. And that's pretty much all she wrote.

Good write up. Excellent use of the numbering system and using the lanes each guy is supposed to fill, and then how the blocks develop from there. Really enjoy this series.


October 13th, 2015 at 3:30 PM ^

Love all of these types of analysis as well as the commentary from members of the mgoblog community.  We really have one of the smartest fan bases, or at least this blog compared to other fanbases.  If people come in without prior coaching or playing experience, people make the effort to really understand the Xs and Os of the game.  Love it.  

Props to the Mgoblog community.  


October 13th, 2015 at 5:47 PM ^

Agree. It takes a certain type of person. Instead of responding to this with "ZOMG WE'RE AWESOME" we have fans who say, "ok, was this by accident or design, and is it repeatable? Also...zomg we're awesome"

In the business world that's part of root cause analysis, which can land you a big fat paycheck if you're good at it.

Intellectual football fans. They exist, and we have them. I feel like I get smarter every time I read this blog.


October 13th, 2015 at 2:07 PM ^

I've always looked at kick returns as just basic pricinples like finding a hole and setting up blocks, but this is obviously a very well thought out power play that worked nearly to perfection.

Touchdown Michigan!


October 13th, 2015 at 2:08 PM ^

that even uses kick returns to mess with our opponents' heads. They can't relax for a second.

There often isn't that much difference between a good team and a bad team. The good team just pays more attention to a bunch of small details and gets them right all the time. We are a good team.

Space Coyote

October 13th, 2015 at 2:24 PM ^

As one of the guys said, "we had right return called and it kind of worked as a counter". Left return would be just the opposite. They are fairly conventional in their set up (even more so now that you can't use the wedge).

What is great here is the execution. This is obviously a team that has been coached up well in this regard, and they executed this almost to perfection. The only miss was on the double, and that was cleaned up by Peppers executing his lead block well. Staying on their blocks, sealing their guys, that's tough to do; you don't need some exotic scheme, because it's already hard enough without all of that and adding it in often times makes it even more difficult. This is just fundamentally really, really good execution on Michigan's part, which I find really enjoyable. Baxter is getting these guys to play how they should on special teams.


October 13th, 2015 at 2:44 PM ^

Maybe I just don't pay enough attention to kickoffs that don't score, but I don't recall seeing the "power" aspect very often, where multiple guys are running east west to a different point of attack, and leaving backside guys unblocked with the assumption that they won't get there in time or will get caught up in the wash. Maybe it's just not as obvious when it's not executed as crisply as this?

Space Coyote

October 13th, 2015 at 3:20 PM ^

Just for starters, most teams will run to the sideline of their primary return guy because it's generally a little quicker hitting. This is an example of that. Through scouting, they will determine where they think the opponent is going to kick the ball, and align their primary kicker in that spot. In this case, they aligned Peppers to the right and called right return, but then Northwestern kicked opposite (but you still have your call on, still would have been right return had Peppers received).

Now, if you're looking at the way Hoke did things, Hoke used his double a bit differently than this, in that his teams typically doubled the edge (again, he was running it into the boundary) or ran what was essentially a modified wedge with 2 guys and did a middle return. So you likely didn't see it too much in Hoke's tenure, but I'm not sure Norfleet or Dileo were guys you wanted running east/west on their returns either.

What's nice about having a guy specifically for special teams though is that they can scout this stuff heavily and see how the opponent is using their defenders (who is the gunner, who is the sting player (guy who blows up wedge), who folds, etc). Michigan may not block this way every game, they can adjust how they block right return, left return, and middle return based on how the opponent typically executes their end of things.

Space Coyote

October 13th, 2015 at 3:27 PM ^

Here is how Hoke generally ran his kick return, note you double the edge and handle R2 and R1 with that double and lead with the other return man unless it is necessary to cut off the backside.

Here's what Harbaugh essentially ran. Note here that L2 went outside, so the double didn't seal him inside, they sealed him outside to form the lane. Note also that Michigan uses three people across the middle (like above), which I prefer, rather than the two people below; that gives them the additional blocker to come across the formation.

So I'm not saying that it's not a different wrinkle, certainly it is. And they may change their wrinkles depending on what they see on film. But it isn't something totally unique either.


October 13th, 2015 at 2:15 PM ^

Im typing this an 8th time just because its unreal.  On the KO return video.....

Watch Peppers.  Watch the guy he blocks/destroys.  After blocking him, keep an eye on both Peppers and the guy he blocked (the guy he blocks is pretty much further upfield by a yard or so after the block.  Keep an eye on both.  Watch Peppers just fly in comparison.

Watch again.  A second or 2 after the block, look where Peppers is compared to Chesson.  At the end or just before Chesson scores, look where Peppers is in comparison.  Plays his ass off and runs like a Deer.  Nothing runs like a Deer - except Peppers.


October 13th, 2015 at 2:58 PM ^

The original plan was to say, "Mason Cole is the fastest guy on the team. I sure hope they kick it to Mason instead of to Jabrill or Jehu," but no one believed them. So now they put Jabrill and Jehu back together and talk about how fast Jehu is. But the other team watches film too. That's why they kick it to Chesson. 


October 13th, 2015 at 3:06 PM ^

The second or third time I watched thsi replay, one of the things I noticed was Peppers finishing that run.
My thought was on the competition - even on a kick-off returned for a touchdown, Peppers wants to beat Chesson.
Maybe its just a point of pride between the two, maybe it's just a Peppers competitive drive thing, or maybe its a team wide attitude. 
I don't really care what it is, those kids are fast.


Hugh White

October 13th, 2015 at 3:12 PM ^

Comparing the Wall/Collision to the Battle of Stirling bridge from Braveheart is just too good.  Among other points of comparison -- the heroes' war-paint is blue. 


October 13th, 2015 at 6:45 PM ^

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October 13th, 2015 at 7:32 PM ^

How did I watch football before I found MGoBlog?

I guess I just yelled (and drank) when good things happened and groaned (and drank) when bad things happened.

But I didn't really understand any of it.

Thank you, thank you, thank you!


October 13th, 2015 at 10:35 PM ^

Never had the opt'y to play real (not flag) football in my life, but it's the greatest sport ever. It's like Gladiator Chess or Archon with football players ... or something combining visceral with cerebral. The analysis you guys do tweaks something in brain like the melodic tones of a slot machine to a gambler. 

Whatever it is I can't get enough of it ... Stunts, 3-tech, the flat, pulls, Power O, Sad ghosts, Taco Pants ... thanks!


October 14th, 2015 at 1:25 PM ^

   Start   working at home with Google! It's by-far the best job I've had. Last Wednesday I got a brand new BMW since getting a check for $6474 this - 4 weeks past. I began this 8-months ago and immediately was bringing home at least $77 per hour. I work through this link, go to tech tab for work detail

---------------------- ◐◐◐◐◐◐◐◐  w­w­w.b­u­z­z­n­e­w­s­9­9­­.­c­o­­m