|Kicker||Yr||Punter||Yr||Kickoffs||Yr||Punt return||Yr||Kick return||Yr|
|Brendan Gibbons||Sr*||Matt Wile||Jr||Matt Wile||Jr||Dennis Norfleet||So||Dennis Norfleet||So|
|Matt Wile||Jr||Kenny Allen||Fr*||Brendan Gibbons||Sr*||Drew Dileo||Sr||Drew Dileo||Sr|
Oh man. Despite the season-long suspension of Will Hagerup, Michigan has depth at both kicker spots and moves Dennis Norfleet into both return jobs. Brendan Gibbons will aim for a top five spot in the history of Michigan kicker accuracy; Matt Wile has established himself as a consistent B+ punter (at least), and Wile's being pushed by a freshman who's been booming them since spring practice.
This could be good. As long as they cover someone and block someone. Right. That bit.
Gibbons year by year
If BRENDAN GIBBONS continues his meteoric rise at the same rate he's improved over the last two seasons he'll be 6/6 on 60+ field goals and win the Heisman. This… is not likely. But a Groza finalist spot actually is, or would be except for the fact that Brady Hoke hates field goals. (Woo!)
Let's review: as a redshirt freshman, Gibbons was 1/5 on mostly chip-shot kicks, paving the way for other kickers to be about as bad. Michigan all but abandoned the idea of kicking field goals longer than 30 yards, and when Hoke was hired the first thing on many people's minds is "they HAVE to get a kicker, right?"
Brady Hoke gave Gibbons a hearty back-slap, transferring a millionth of a percent of his confidence to the beleaguered freshman, and lo, the next season he was 13/17 with his clutch kick winning the Sugar Bowl. As a junior, his range improved and he hit 16 of 18 field goals, including a 52-yarder. In terms of basic accuracy his 2012 was the third-best in Michigan history, behind only John Carlson in 1989 and Kicking Competency Lopata in 2007—and Lopata's long that year was 42. (MGoBlue doesn't have a long for Carlson.)
In terms of advanced stats, Michigan's field goal efficiency was 12th nationally. (Matt Wile did help out by hitting 2 of 3 long ones.) That's even more impressive when you consider that it was held down by Brady Hoke's tendency to scoff at long field goals, pull out a slab of meat, tear off a chunk, and scream "GIVE ME A FIRST DOWN OR GIVE ME DEATH!"
I may be excessively enthusiastic about Brady Hoke's aggressiveness.
Anyway, Gibbons is all but automatic now. He's tied for ninth all-time in FG% at M despite the awful start; the Hoke version of Gibbons would be a solid #1 at 83%. He should press into the upper reaches of the record book with a season similar to 2012, except that kickers are weird and can implode at any time. Brady Hoke emanates calm, though, so that is not likely to happen.
And Michigan has a great backup option in MATT WILE, who nailed a 52-yarder himself in the bowl game. He's the starting punter and kickoff guy—he can just kick things, often a great distance. Even if Gibbons shorts out Michigan will be turning to a guy who they can expect success from. So yeah, I'm breaking out the 5 even if this means I'll be building a moat if things go wrong this fall. YOLO.
[After THE JUMP: Norfleet! Norfleet! Norfleet! (Matt Wile. Terrible punt coverage.)]
With Will Hagerup off to the Hoke gulag for a year of yoga and cleansing, MATT WILE takes over the full-time punting job. He's got a bit of a track record largely thanks to Hagerup's inability to stay on the sunny side of life and his pooch-punting skills. It's a good one. MLive's Kyle Meinke helpfully filtered out Wile's pooch punts and found that he averaged 42.6 yards a kick over the course of his career, which would have been in the 30s nationally and third in the Big Ten.
And Wile was a very effective short guy, as seven of his nine attempts in that category landed inside the 20. And and he has not done this yet:
Wile can expect to improve, as players do, and even marginal improvements should result in one of the nation's better punters. He won't scrape the Mesko/Hagerup-non-shankout heights; he will be a highly reliable option everyone forgets about, pretty much.
If Wile gets injured or implodes, Michigan has a fine backup option in redshirt freshman KENNY ALLEN [hello post], a preferred walk-on from a year ago. Allen was booming them Mesko-style in spring and figures to inherit the job in two years when Wile and Hagerup graduate.
comin' for you, Big Ten (Eric Upchurch)
DENNIS NORFLEET ascends to the top spot at both return positions, which is excellent for a number of reasons.
One: Norfleet averaged 23.6 yards a pop last year on 35 kick return attempts despite having a long of 36*. This isn't great in a national context, but a year before Martavious Odoms and Vincent Smith averaged 18.4 yards a pop, which was almost dead last nationally. That was partially on the not-so-explosive returners; a large part of it was Michigan's inability to block anyone. That didn't go away in a year. That average in a newly return-hostile environment coming from that baseline is impressive.
Two: Jeremy Gallon and Drew Dileo are no longer going to be risking themselves on punts when they are badly needed in the receiving corps.
Three: Jeremy Gallon is no longer going to drive you crazy with his decisions, as he's done for two of his three years as the starting punt returner.
Norfleet's skills actually translate much better to punt returns than kick returns since he's incredibly quick and not incredibly fast in a straight line. If he can field balls effectively—as we've seen with Gallon, something you can't take for granted—he should be a major upgrade. Gallon averaged a miserable 5.5 yards an attempt last year. Norfleet's two punt returns for 53 yards almost outstripped Gallon's 12, which gathered 66. He was a punter away from doubling up, even:
Norfleet could be a Breaston-level star, but these days both return spots are reduced in importance. Kickoffs often result in touchbacks (although apparently not in the Big Ten: just 18% of kickoffs M fielded last year were touchbacks); the adoption of spread coverages has slashed punt return yards. These days, preventing a roll and not fumbling is an even larger part of the game. Still, excellent returners can be worth ten yards a return over the course of the season. Venric Mark averaged 18.7 yards per opportunity, for instance.
It's positive that Norfleet wrested the job away with authority. Hoke:
"He's done a very good job. He cracked one the other night (in the scrimmage), which was live, for about 35 or 40 yards.
"And that was some good on good competition, it was good to see."
Norfleet was in the rotation all last year and returned punts in high school (obviously), so inexperience shouldn't be an issue. This figures to be a major upgrade as long as Norfleet hangs on to the damn ball.
If he can't, Dileo waits in the wings on punts; Hoke said that Chesson was next in on kickoffs. Freshman Channing Stribling and Jourdan Lewis are also in the mix. With the move of Avery to safety, whichever of those guys is burning a redshirt would probably be the second or third guy there. Stribling in on the two-deep, so let's go with him.
Michigan's problem in this department is blocking. Norfleet had few creases. His kickoffs that actually broke past the 25 often featured audacious, risky field reversals; he almost never had a shot at making a cut that took him upfield. I have no idea if this is going to get any better or not. I suspect it will as Michigan tries to address a major problem area and the backups become more experienced and athletic.
*[Stat-oriented digression: you can tell how much variance is in kick returns just by M's number. Despite being 10% worse than average, they were 52nd nationally. IE: above-average. Kick return ratings are all basically "did you break a huge one."]
Kickoff And Punt Coverage
Michigan was horrible, horrible, horrible at punt coverage last year. Horrible.
They're still in the dark ages when it comes to covering punts, which led to two unpleasant facts: opponents averaged over ten yards a return and had returns on over half of Michigan's punts. The Ace Sanders touchdown that cost Michigan the bowl game had been coming all year.
I fired up the NCAA's punting stats and created a stat: Yards Per Return Opportunity, which is RETURN YARDS / (PUNTS – TOUCHBACKS). Michigan was in the bottom ten nationally in YPRO, hanging out with the likes of Akron and New Mexico State and UAB and Duke: ie, athletically overmatched teams. Michigan is not one of those.
Michigan showed some movement towards the spread punt in fall practice, repeatedly showing it, motioning to a conventional formation, and punting; a bit later they actually punted out of it. It didn't look like they knew what they were doing, unfortunately.
Meanwhile, Wile was a decent kickoff guy. He got the opponent to kneel on 36% of his attempts. This was about average nationally (65th). Michigan was 100th at giving up yards after kickoffs were caught, but if they'd given up three fewer yards per return they would have been 41st. That adds up to about ten yards a game—not something to get seriously exercised about. Still, it's another symptom of the poor coverage units Michigan has fielded lately—Wile was 81st in average KO length, so the crappy return stats aren't because he was putting them on the one yard line and opponents were getting out to the 25.
This is an area for emphasis, although not enough one one to justify burning linebacker redshirts. Looks like that's happening, though.