|Kicker||Yr||Punter||Yr||Kickoffs||Yr||Punt return||Yr||Kick return||Yr|
|Kenny Allen||Jr*||Blake O'Neill||Sr*||Kenny Allen||Jr*||Jabrill Peppers||Fr*||Jabrill Peppers||Fr*|
|Kyle Seychel||Fr*||Kenny Allen||Jr*||Andrew David||Fr||Jehu Chesson||Jr*||Jehu Chesson||Jr*|
No coaching upgrade on the team is steeper than special teams. Under Brady Hoke and Dan Ferrigno, Michigan featured adequate kicking and terrible everything else. Their usual MO was one blocked punt against an early tomato can, archaic punt coverage that was terrible even with 11 guys on the field, and return units that did little except take penalties when Dennis Norfleet finally managed to escape from ravenous packs of defenders.
John Baxter's Fresno State teams led the country in blocked kicks over the course of his tenure there—one that overlaps with Virginia Tech at its Beamerball peak—and in his only year at USC took their special teams units from nowhere to 2nd and 4th in the country in blocked punts and kicks, respectively. Special teams is a low data, high variance enterprise but if anyone's got the track record to suggest he's going to make an impact, it's Baxter.
Now about that scholarship kicker…
The holder becomes the holdee [Fuller]
This is looking hairy all of a sudden. Scholarship freshman ANDREW DAVID was immediately dumped well down the depth chart, and Michigan must turn to the walk-ons that populate any D-I team's kicking roster. One, KENNY ALLEN [hello post], was the heir apparent at punter until John Baxter rolled into town with an Aussie in tow; the other, KYLE SEYCHEL, is a redshirt freshman who fans didn't even know was on the team until fall camp.
Reports out of said camp have been worried. Those coming out of the open practice were mixed, but guys who had been around for more than a few attempts were disquieted. There are reports Michigan is reconsidering their decision to forgo a scholarship guy in the 2016 class. That is not a good sign. Neither is that OR on the depth chart.
"I dunno, is kicker" is always a valid thing to say about kickers you have not seen much of; in this case I'm just hoping for a guy to bang them in from 40 yards and in.
wait isn't this guy in twilight or something [Eric Upchurch]
The OR is much more welcoming at this spot. Things are looking just fine at punter despite the departures of both Matt Wile and Will Hagerup. Allen has been booming punts in practice for a few years now, and during the Hoke era we saw a lot of punts in practice.
And then there's that imported Aussie. BLAKE O'NEILL [g'day mate post] comes from a land down under where small children carry around football-shaped objects to punt at anything they run across that is poisonous. Everything in Australia is poisonous. (Yes, especially the koalas.) When the survivors reach adulthood, the resulting skills are impressive:
Asked if the 6-foot-2, 215-pound kicker is the type of special teams player who can change a game, Baxter nods, saying, "He's that."
"Listen," he continued, "if you put a trashcan out there 40 yards, he can usually hit it, OK? He's as accurate, and in some cases more accurate than, the quarterbacks."
O'Neill's first year in college football was last year, when he did this at Weber State:
O'Neill finished sixth nationally (Football Championship Subdivision) in punting during the 2014 season at Weber State. He played in all 12 games and averaged 44.1 yards per punt, setting a single-season punting average record for the Wildcats.
O'Neill tallied 62 punts for 2,737 yards with a long of 74 yards. He boomed 18 punts of 50-plus yards and notched 25 boots inside the opposition's 20-yard line. O'Neill ran for a first down on a fake punt and tossed a completion for a first down on another fake.
Are you ready for some punting highlights? Woo!
AUSSIE PUNTS: SKY TERRITORY sounds like a Chuck Norris movie
Not sure if he's going to be able to do the thing where he idles for a couple seconds before he punts at at D-I level, but Michigan now has a special teams coach with a terrific track record. If he can make it so, it will be so.
O'Neill can rugby punt with either foot and his directional kicking skills in the video above are creepy, Orin Incandenza-level stuff. Real life Blake O'Neill probably isn't going to be good as a fictional punter who is the highest paid player in the NFL. Probably.
[After THE JUMP: gratuitously placed Jabrill Peppers highlights designed to make you click through mooohahaha]
RETURN UNITS: CANNAH GET A HOT TUB TAKE TWO
LET'S GOOOOOOOO [Fuller]
Jabrill Peppers got one return in last year before he was dinged and then done for the season. It didn't get that far but was enticing all the same:
He sailed past those first two guys, and if you can do that on the regular you are going to have a good time returning punts. Also:
Peppers should have an impact even in the modern million-gunner world. He's listed with an OR next to Jehu Chesson, and I like Jehu Chesson, but cumong man. Unless he can't field them consistently it's going to be Peppers.
I'm not sure how much impact a special teams coach can have on this aspect of the game, since the schemes are all "try to get in this guy's way as he runs 40 yards downfield." Meanwhile the spread punt has nerfed return games nationwide. Last year's preview:
In just the last five years, punt return rate has dropped from 41% to 33% as the spread punt's tendrils reach across the nation, and the drop would be much more drastic than that if you took touchbacks out of the equation.
Still, there's a ton of upside here. Since Norfleet's touchdown against Maryland was erased by a block in the back, last year's returns consist of one 32-yarder from Ben Gedeon off a block in the Appalachian State game and just 13 others for 4.3 yards a pop. This was somehow worse than last year's numbers, which featured another touchdown block return and 18 additional attempts for 4.7 yards each.
This will be an interesting test bed for the possibility that coaching matters in this department. If Baxter can free up Peppers just a few times a game the payoff entices.
Kickoff And Punt Coverage
If Michigan doesn't block and cover better this year I am going to start grumbling about Dan Ferrigno.
"Grumble" was putting it mildly after Michigan conjured this up:
Everyone knows that is ten guys playing a sport in which you're allowed eleven, but also consider that this was yet another punt on which Michigan had two guys within 30 yards of the returner on the catch. That was above average for the Ferrigno era:
Last year Michigan was 97th in FEI's fancy punt efficiency metric, which was all the more impressive with Will Hagerup ending up 29th in raw average. Under Ferrigno, Michigan finished 97th, 60th, 91st, and 83rd. On the bright side, that's incredible consistency for such a low-sample, swingy thing like punt returns. That's the ticket.
Baxter used spread punting at USC a couple years ago and should bring that to Michigan. I say "should" because Harbaugh, bless his heart, has omitted punting from any open practice he's had since his arrival. That will significantly perk up the coverage teams, if there are even any punts to return.
BLOCKY BLOCKY TEAMS
This preview has never considered the idea that Michigan might go block a bunch of kicks and turn games around. This is because Michigan has never really done that. Occasionally they would overwhelm the special teams unit of a lower-level team. I can't remember the last time Michigan blocked a kick in a real game. 2008 Northwestern?
[Consults with MGoTeam] Best we've got since Brandon Graham got punts in back to back games against Penn State and Illinois is an extra point against MSU and a field goal in the Outback Bowl and some punters fumbling snaps. God. Five years of nothing, and no returns, and… ugh. Baxter feels it too:
"I do feel like we can make an impact," he said. "It's upsetting to me that the last time we returned a punt or a kick was in 2007 and 2008. The last time we returned a field goal for a score was 2003. That's way too long. I can tell you this: we can approach this camp and this season with tremendous urgency. When those things happen, it's when they happen, but I can tell you that we expect it tomorrow."
I have no idea what to expect here, but "something" is a massive improvement already.