Preview 2016: Special Teams

Submitted by Brian on September 1st, 2016 at 4:47 PM

Previously: Podcast 8.0. The Story. Quarterback. Running Back. Wide Receiver. Tight End And Friends. Offensive Line. Defensive End. Defensive Tackle. Linebacker. Cornerback. Safety.

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[Eric Upchurch]

Depth Chart

Kicker Yr Punter Yr Kickoffs Yr Punt return Yr Kick return Yr
Kenny Allen Sr* Kenny Allen Sr* Kenny Allen Sr* Jabrill Peppers So* Chris Evans Fr.
Quinn Nordin Fr Quinn Nordin Fr Quinn Nordin Fr Jourdan Lewis Sr. Jehu Chesson Sr.*

John Baxter fled back to California after one Michigan winter and will get what's coming to him in the next ice age. Baxter is a uniquely good special teams coach and there wasn't an obvious replacement available; also Rashan Gary existed. So Michigan promoted Chris Partridge to a full-fledged assistant spot and split special teams duties between him and Jay Harbaugh.

There's probably going to be a dropoff in effort applied. Last year Michigan took timeout in a squib situation so they could insert Dymonte Thomas; they lined him up at the spot a squib should go and lo, he returned it to midfield. If that creativity persists it's evidence Harbaugh is pushing every available angle. I don't expect it to. John Baxter appeared to be a rare commodity: a difference-making special teams coach.

Even so, this should be a strength.

KICKER

Rating: 4

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[Bryan Fuller]

The dread was palpable last year when scholarship freshman Andrew David wasn't even in the conversation. A couple of walk-ons vied for the job and were by all accounts somewhere between vexing and terrible. So of course when KENNY ALLEN locked the spot down he hit 18/22, with one miss a bad snap and a second due in large part to a downright supernatural gust of wind that pushed a probable make wide. Allen was also 46/46 on PATs.

The catch, such as it is, is that Allen rarely attempted a field goal from outside 40 yards. Just six of his attempts were in the zone of mild difficulty; he went 3/6. He did hit a 47 yarder and he's a booming punter so the leg strength is likely there.

Even if Allen is unproven at longer distances, I will take a #collegekicker who is near-automatic from 40 and in every day of the week and twice on Saturday. Some additional range is the only improvement required.

If that range is not forthcoming, QUINN NORDIN [recruiting profile] also lurks. Harbaugh is uncomfortable with having Allen take every last kicking duty so it's possible Nordin gets some longer kicks. If Michigan does decide to spread the load out, kickoffs are a more likely deployment for Nordin.

PUNTER

Rating: 4.

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[Bryan Fuller]

KENNY ALLEN, yes that Kenny Allen, figures to win this job too. Allen in fact came to Michigan a punter, and a booming one at that. He's had two punts in games, both of which went 50+ yards, and since Brady Hoke's reaction to "you have to have an open practice" was to turn it into a special teams exhibition your author has seen Allen punt a ton. He's really good. He could challenge Will Hagerup and Monte Robbins for the all-time gross average, which currently sits at 45 yards even.

One department that figures to have a decline is pooch punting. Blake O'Neil's feathery touch on punts inside the ten was remarkable and unlikely to be repeated by any non-Aussie. When I caught Michgian's open practice at Ford Field, Andrew David was tasked with that nose-down pooch punting stuff that's all the rage. David's left the team since; that might signify Allen's not great at pinning the opposition deep.

QUINN NORDIN is also an option here.

RETURN UNITS: CANNAH GET A HOT TUB TAKE TWO

Rating: 5

Evans should get some touches here

This was very good a year ago and figures to maintain a high level of performance. Happily, it sounds like Michigan is going to run out some of its freshmen on kickoff returns:

Assistant special teams coach Jay Harbaugh said Wednesday that Michigan's tried out several freshmen in the return game: Safety Khaleke Hudson, corner David Long, receivers Eddie McDoom, Nate Johnson and Kekoa Crawford, as well as running back/receiver Chris Evans.

"All those guys are capable of it," Harbaugh said. "Sometimes you don't want All-American guys returning kicks, but you also like it because they're electrifying and can give you a big play."

I say "happily" despite the fact that Jehu Chesson took one back for a touchdown, Jourdan Lewis did this…

…and Jabrill Peppers exists because none of those guys need to expose themselves to the extra wear and tear when the guys Harbaugh mentioned above are available. Kick returning is a low-downside activity where the worst that happens if you drop one is a touchback. As long as the guys taking it back have good ball security it's a good idea to spread out the reps. And with people raving about literally all those dudes, one of them—probably Evans—can give you just as much big play potential as the veterans.

Against MSU and Iowa and OSU, sure, run out the starters. The new kids will be all right the rest of the way.

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LET'S GOOOOOOOO [Fuller]

Punt returns are another matter. Harbaugh said that "sometimes having a freshman out there catching a punt doesn't give you the best feeling in the world." Yes sir. Unless it's redshirt freshman JABRILL PEPPERS, who managed to make fair catches spectacular last year. Ace in fact put together a supercut of Peppers fair catches. He did this because this was the phase when Peppers was gently setting the ball on the ground after the whistle in a hilarious fashion, but amongst some rather nondescript plays were a huge source of hidden yardage for Michigan:

I used to get mad at Jeremy Gallon for fielding punts, and then mad at Jeremy Gallon for not fielding punts, and so forth and so on. I cannot remember a bad thing that has yet happened when Peppers fields a punt except for a scary moment when he booted one out of bounds against BYU. On the other hand, this is a 30 yard swing on a ball almost everyone else lets go:

Peppers was able to get to and field a huge number of punts mortals let roll for another 15 or 20 yards, and he did that without exposing Michigan to an inordinate muff danger. (No, commenters, we're not doing "phrasing" any more.) Plenty of guys would have dropped one of dozens of regular-ass fielding attempts. This is the special teams equivalent of Peppers against a wide receiver screen: a unique and excellent skill.

That skill alone is worth putting him back there, and then when he actually gets to rip off a return:

Sometimes he combined the ability to field punts at a dead run with actual returns:

Even when he doesn't get a ton of yards he is making two or three or four guys miss:

Or six:

It's just a matter of time before he breaks one. Or five.

I mean, probably. The ubiquity of spread punting is much to Michigan's detriment. Since 2005 fair catches have skyrocketed and yards per punt return plummeted. Getting a return of any kind is now a rarity:

This is a low sample, huge variance area. Michigan could get little more than some yards saved on fair catches, or they could have multiple game-breaking plays. I lean towards the latter.

Kickoff And Punt Coverage

Rating: 3

The stats are deeply annoying here. One missed tackle, one… event, and three missed flags on one play resulted in touchdowns for the opposition on Michigan punts a year ago. Thus their punt efficiency fancystat (82nd) barely budged from the flagrantly incompetent Dan Ferrigno years. Ten man punt coverage goes here.

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Ferrigno punt return efficiencies: 97th, 97th, 60th, 91st, and 83rd.

The numbers are similar; the differences to an observer were stark. Gone were the days when most Michigan punts were fielded with nobody in the same zip code:

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The Mitchell Paige touchdown is instructive since he's got to deal with five guys almost immediately and only manages to bust it thanks to a very very bad Channing Stribling tackle attempt:

As a special teams coach you can't do much more than that. Meanwhile Rutgers got several gifts on their punt return touchdown, including a targeting overturn that rivaled the Joe Bolden ejection for worst call of the year.

All other punt returns totaled 54 yards, an average of four a pop. There were just 15 returns all year on 55 punts, down from 21 on 54 the year before and 28 on 62 in 2014. (Keep in mind that many of these punts are not fielded or go into the endzone, so that's a bigger percentage decrease on fieldable punts returned than the raw numbers show.) It was a clear and significant upgrade on par with what's happened nationally as spread punting becomes ubiquitous.

Meanwhile nothing of note happened on kickoff returns all year except a Rutgers touchdown on which Wayne Lyons was spectacularly held. When not giving that touchdown up they were quite good. Kenny Allen had a bunch of touchbacks and the return teams were good enough to get Michigan to average nationally despite the large bad thing.

Michigan should be able to maintain the gains that Baxter provided in this area. While I don't expect Michigan to pull out the squib return play going forward, moving into the modern era of punt coverage should stick. There were some reports Michigan was set to return to pro-style punting this spring, but those appeared to be false. Michigan was mostly spread punting at Ford Field. They occasionally lined up in a pro-style set; my assumption is that they want to have that in their back pocket in case the opposition has a reason to go for an all-out block. You know, for reasons.

Comments

dragonchild

September 1st, 2016 at 5:10 PM ^

Dude also tried to go for it on his own on 4th and 16.  I don't know if we'll ever see such a feather-footed punter again but his decision-making was erratic and you can't blame all that on the fact that he's from the upside-down part of the globe.  He was the Devin Gardner of punters.

Everyone Murders

September 1st, 2016 at 5:18 PM ^

Overall O'Neill was great for the team.  He was very gracious w/r/t the play of which we must not speak against MSU, but the snap was on the edge of his catching radius at best.  (Aided, of course, by an uncalled roughing of the snapper.)  He would have been well within his rights to sulk, spread the blame, or do anything else.  But he manned up and took his share of the blame and everyone else's share of the blame.

It seems that his decision-making was, overall, pretty damn good.  And, unlike his predecessor, I don't recall him ever forgetting to look for the ball while punting!

dragonchild

September 1st, 2016 at 5:37 PM ^

I'm not questioning his character or composure as a person.  Holy shit, you honestly think I'm that despicable?  I'm talking about his

IN-GAME

decision-making.  And being compared to Devin Gardner is by no means harsh, or at least not intended to be.  That guy did occasionally make you go WTF, but he also practically won games by himself when the coaches gave him nothing to work with, and I'm just saying we got the bad with the good, which was a lot of good.  Not to mention Devin Gardner was a class act all the way; are you accusing me of slandering his character too??

Next time please insult my penis size or something; that kind of usual Internet crap is just whatever.  The insinuation here is genuinely painful.

Everyone Murders

September 1st, 2016 at 6:15 PM ^

My point wasn't that you were engaging in character assassination, so sorry if it came off that way.  It's more that you were saying that O'Neill's decision-making was poor.  That made me think of his most infamous play - where I think he gets WAY too much blame. 

On that play it wasn't a great snap, the center was interfered with, and MSU was probably offside to begin with.  But O'Neill took ALL the blame for it, and some folks tagged him as a bad decision-maker based on that play.

Gardner, in my mind, was a tragic (kinda - it's just football) story of unrealized potential.  O'Neill's potential was pretty much realized, with a couple of bad plays.  That would have been a better way to put it. 

And your penis size?  It's ridiculously large, and a bit unbecoming.  Get some pants with pleats or something - you're making the rest of us feel bad. 

dragonchild

September 1st, 2016 at 7:34 PM ^

I have no idea what play you're talking about.  NO. IDEA.  Probably involved some game where he never would've been in that situation if the refs were even mostly out to get Michigan that day.  No game is won or lost on a single play, as bad as this hypothetical decision was.  But whatever it was, we shall not speak of it again!

BigBirdBlue

September 1st, 2016 at 5:36 PM ^

I don't ever remember another year like last year where I saw our Wolverines getting so close to blocking several punts.  Granted I don't remember us getting home on them; but it did strike me that we were springing someone to get that close way more.

 

dragonchild

September 2nd, 2016 at 8:17 AM ^

It's incredibly hard to block the punt in a way that won't result in contact, which is invariably a penalty that KEEPS THE DRIVE ALIVE.  I literally see more penalties than blocked punts, which turns a 4th down into a 1st down plus yards for the opposition, and that's if you get there.

The risk isn't worth it.  Send a couple guys from the edge just to make sure the punter doesn't have all day, but don't send them flying at a guy it's illegal to touch with all fists and vinegar.  Play it like a DE hedging on zone read; shuffle forward while staying square to take away the punt fake and block the shield guys when the punt goes off.

vdiddy24

September 1st, 2016 at 5:56 PM ^

It was always frustrating watching him consistently boot every punt into the endzone with Hoke smirking and saying "sometimes your leg is too big" like we were supposed to be impressed by that.

gwkrlghl

September 1st, 2016 at 6:10 PM ^

Peppers' ability to (terrifyingly) field punts on the run is a huuuuge advantage. As a gunner, you've gotta be always thinking about not getting there early and jacking the returner for a 15 yd penalty. If the dude is catching in on the fly and you can't see the ball, you almost have to stand and watch. Peppers blew by like 4-5 guys right away on that Minnesota return partially because you have to leave him be till he has it, and then as soon as he has it, he's running full speed away from you. Lethal if you can do that intentionally

03 Blue 07

September 2nd, 2016 at 11:20 AM ^

This is a great point, and something I hadn't thought of before. I played gunner on punts throughout high school, and you're absolutely right- whenever I'd see the returner start running forward quickly, I'd have to rapidly slow down, sort of freeze up in a way, and try to track the returner but stay far enough away from him as to 1) not interfere with the catch, but also, 2) far enough away that I can react to a cut he makes once he catches the ball. Since I, as the gunner, don't know where the ball is, I can't just line him up once he stops moving and go in for the big hit, because the ball might not get there before I do. So it's like the gunner goes from being aggressive to "on his heels," so to speak, thus making the gunner(s) much easier for the returner, running at a high rate of speed and carrying momentum, to evade. 

Alumnus93

September 1st, 2016 at 6:15 PM ^

well a dropoff in effort applied would be a better sell had Baxter not adjusted and pulled the gunners off when msu didn't have anyone back, and rushed all eleven. that had to be the biggest wtf moment ever. Baxter dropped the earth, in that one.

gwkrlghl

September 1st, 2016 at 6:26 PM ^

Look at the screenshot on this return. That's 5 guys with 1 blocker and if you watch the clip, the blocker (Stribling) spectacularly manages to not even lay a hand on a Rutgers player so Peppers beat 5 guys by himself

caup

September 1st, 2016 at 6:41 PM ^

1. His academic assistance program. (good)

2.The idiotic punt formation vs MSU.

3. The idiotic punt block attempt vs OSU out of their own endzone with Peppers ready to wreak havoc.

Don't shoot the messenger, but I've also heard that Harbaugh kind of told JB to look around.

gbdub

September 1st, 2016 at 8:50 PM ^

I'm sure Allen will do a great job holding down the fort, but man we need to find more Aussie footy players for punt duties. Blake O'Neil was a weapon. Didn't he have some insanely low number of touchbacks? He could pin them deep. Before the ... thing, he was the player of the game, consistently flipping field position (I can't bring myself to rewatch any of that, but didn't he boot like a 60+ yarder that still got downed inside the 5?) He also seemed to always know exactly how long he could hold it before booting it, which gave our gunners an extra second or two to swarm the returner. He was consistently worth many yards per game over an average punter.

Even on the ... thing, he takes way too much blame. His main fault was not falling on / holding the ball (though that would have given Sparty a last play attempt). Yeah, he dropped the snap, but it was a poor one (probably a 1 in catch-chart land), the refs missed like 3 penalties (including blatant holding / illegal blocking on the return) and  Baxter bone-headedly failed to adjust for the Spartans going max-block. Whole thing was a comedy of errors, of which O'Neil played only (an important) part.

dragonchild

September 2nd, 2016 at 8:27 AM ^

Same game as. . . that.  O'Neill was the first punter I saw that I would describe as a real playmaker.  Again, when I say he's the "Devin Gardner of punters" I mean that in every sense, very much including the good.  He was a punter that made a difference. . . often incredibly good, a few times catastrophically bad (yes "that" was by no means 100% his fault but his attempt to heroball out of a disaster was very much Devin Gardner throwing a pick-six in his own endzone).  Just that a punter could be that much of a difference-maker is a sort of new idea I'd never considered, and both Baxter and O'Neill deserve credit for that.

However, I think I'm ready to embrace a safer, more boring special teams this year.

socrking

September 2nd, 2016 at 12:55 AM ^

Baxter's reputation didn't match the results last year.  He was definitely an upgrade from Michigan's prior ST coordinators.  But we didn't see anything close to elite results last year.  Our kick coverage was poor, we had 0 blocked kicks, and we had that punt block against MSU that cost us that game.  Parts of the MSU play were a fluke and others were not.  Baxter should have taken a timeout when MSU showed full punt block.  He should have substituted Lewis out for a blocker.  And he should have told Blake to fall on it if the snap was bad.  He may be a great coordinator.  He just didn't get the results.  

Goggles Paisano

September 2nd, 2016 at 6:51 AM ^

Special teams played a huge part in Tenn almost losing last night to App St.  First, Tenn muffed a punt in the 1st quarter which led to an App St TD.  Then App St missed an extra point  wide-right to go up 14-3 and then missed a 42 yd FG with under 6 minutes to go to break the tie.  

Missing that XP was huge - would have forced Tenn to go for two to tie it up in the 4th.