Overall rating: 3.
|Punter||Yr.||Kicker||Yr.||Punt Return||Yr.||Kick Return||Yr.|
|Will Hagerup||Fr.||Brendan Gibbons||Fr.*||Martavious Odoms||Jr.||Darryl Stonum||Jr.|
|Seth Broekhuizen||Fr.*||Justin Meram||Jr.*||Drew Dileo||Fr.||Martavious Odoms||Jr.|
|--||--||Seth Broekhuizen||Fr.*||Terrance Robinson||So.*||Mike Shaw||Jr.|
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 kicks out 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.
Will that happen? It's 50-50. If it does I wouldn't put it past Dileo to step forth and claim the job. The man himself said he was recruited primarily to return punts, and reports from the fall scrimmage said that he looked extremely smooth doing that. If Odoms makes some bad decisions it won't take Michigan long to yank 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.
*(Mmmm David Brandon euphemism.)