Preview 2013: Special Teams Comment Count

Brian August 28th, 2013 at 5:02 PM

Previously: Podcast 5.0, The Story, Quarterback, Running Back, Wide Receiver, Tight End and Friends, Offensive Line, Defensive Tackle, Defensive End.


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.


Rating: 5


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.)]


Rating: 4


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.

Return Units



comin' for you, Big Ten (Eric Upchurch)

(Rating: 4)

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

Rating: 1


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.



August 28th, 2013 at 5:16 PM ^

All offseason you go on and on about how Norfleet is the answer to every problem from offense, special teams, and world hunger and peace. Now that he named full time return man you give him a 4 rating? I am disapoint. 


August 28th, 2013 at 5:16 PM ^

Has Michigan had a consistently dangerous guy since Breaston?  I can't think of one.  It would be nice to put a little fear into opposing teams in that way like Michigan used to do...Also, I say burn the redshirts if it improves the special teams.  Hoke & Co. will recruit more LBs, and a player can make as much of an impact on special teams as he can while getting the relatively small number of snaps that many guys get at offensive or defensive positions during their freshman years.      


August 30th, 2013 at 1:17 PM ^

As I recall, he was really starting to look like he was getting the whole KR thing, with the ND game being the high point.  Then sometime over the next couple games, he got completely lit up by I forget which team, just crushed.  Didn't see the guy and got laid out at full speed, looked really shaky coming off the field.  IMO after that he looked a little more tentative from then on and I rarely took anything past the 30.  But I'll admit I'm not exactly researching this and working from memory.


August 28th, 2013 at 5:52 PM ^

It's a testament to Brian's faith in Norfleet that the decree to "HOLD ONTO THE DAMN BALL" is merely lower-cased and integrated into the paragraph.  My the heavens rejoice.


August 28th, 2013 at 7:50 PM ^

after witnessing the 2009-2010 season


Brendan Gibbons will aim for a top five spot in the history of Michigan kicker accuracy

My what a Brunette can do for you


August 28th, 2013 at 9:10 PM ^

This line is pretty fantastic:


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!"


August 28th, 2013 at 9:41 PM ^

and he was no stranger to kicks from 40-49. (H/T Bentley. No Rose Bowl box? Anyway, it says 1938-78, but 1989-1991 are there too.)

Kicks by game, with misses in parens:

Notre Dame: none
UCLA: 46 36 43 24
Maryland: 48 30
Wisconsin: 33
Michigan State: 35
Iowa: 46 22
Indiana: 38
Purdue: none
Illinois: 47
Minnesota: (42)
Ohio State: none
USC: 19

1-1 under 20
2-2 from 20-29
5-5 from 30-39
5-6 from 40-49, including 4 makes from 46 or farther

That was some solid kicking.


August 29th, 2013 at 11:00 AM ^

You'd think the fact that our receivers hate donkeys as much as anyone else that we would be solid in down-field blocking elsewhere. Or am I missing something?


August 29th, 2013 at 11:51 AM ^

wanting this team to be better, this unit is where improvement makes a huge difference in all aspects of performance. Michigan, seemingly, has never put a great emphasis on special teams play, creating the home run threat on kickoffs and punts, and taking the ball away on punts and or covering kicks so that teams are regularly pinned deep. 

In fact, it seems that special teams has always been an afterthought at Michigan where the idea and primary mission has, while not actually acknowledged,  been to not lose ground or worse, the ball. Mediocrity has been the hallmark of this unit. OK, great, we didn't make a mistake, now let's go play offense or defense. 

How else do you explain the lack of interest in finding runback artists. I mean not since Steve Breaston has Michigan had a guy who was a threat on every return to bring it back. The year Michigan won the naitonal championship, a punt return TD was the difference in winning the biggest game of the year.

A few years ago, the biggest play of the game, was a kick return for a TD by Darryl Stonum in the come from behind win against Notre Dame.

I think your team puts itself in a position to win more games with special teams play, because they impact a team's peformance with an unepected emotional jolt that can turn momentum and mindset instantly. Succeed on both sides of sudden change, and you become virtually unstoppable. That's why this unit ought to be given more focus.

But the problem is, you spend less time working on them and you have specialists whose sole jobs comes down to executing, when the actual breakdowns usually come from poor blocking and missed assignments. Michigan might have avoided The Horror if they get a key block on the tying field goal attempt that was blocked and went awry. Imagine the historical difference in that one play if the Wolverines go on to win that game.

A missed assignment was the difference on that kick; it wasn't  the kicker's fault or the long snapper, who are the specialists in the kicking game.

It's usually poor protection, bad design or blocking that kills you on special teams. That stuff is about attitude, smarts,  desire and emphasis. Those who play and succeed on special teams win championships. 


August 29th, 2013 at 12:00 PM ^

So much of special teams play depends on the people who rarely get mentioned (unless something goes wrong) – the snappers, the holders, the gunners* on kickoff and punt coverage, the backfield blockers on punts, the edge blockers on field goals and PATs, the guys up front on kickoffs and the guys who block the gunners* on punt returns.
The Countdown to Kickoff that featured the “team” of kicker Brendan Gibbons, holder Drew Dileo and snapper Jareth Glanda never mentioned the blockers, but they can be just as important to the success of the kick.
If burning redshirts means that there are freshmen who are Michigan’s best tacklers on kick/punt coverage or who can prevent opponents from laying a finger on Michigan’s returners, kickers and punters, or who are as good at returning punts and kicks as Dennis Norfleet, Steve Breaston, Percy Harvin, Charles Woodson, Desmond Howard and Billy “White Shoes” Johnson, then I’d say, “Quemar Los Camisas Rojas!”
* WAY OFF TOPIC:  Apologies to Arsenal FC's Gunners, if they've copyrighted that term.  Of course, giving money to Arsene Wenger for every time the term "gunner" is used still might not get him to pay for big-time transfers before 2014.  Besides waiting for the moment when Michigan Football's Team 134 takes the field on Saturday, there might be some of us who also are watching to see what happens in the North London Derby (Arsenal vs. Tottenham) on Sunday and if there will be any major news before the other football's "transfer window" closes on Monday (especially if there's a realistic chance that either Juan Mata or Wayne Rooney might be playing home fixtures at The Emirates after Monday.)


August 29th, 2013 at 3:46 PM ^

Of course if the refs had caught one of the most ridiculously blatant blocks in the back on a kickoff return during the Outback Bowl...yeah, that Ace Sanders TD is called back.

Which should have happened.