Everyone had a pretty good idea coming in to the season that the offense was ready to take the next step, while the defense would struggle mightily trying to keep pace with most teams. However, the special teams unit was always the X factor for this team going in to 2010. New faces at both punter and kicker, as well as two years of "punt return doom" worried most fans, but frankly it was more fun to speculate on Denard Robinson than talk about kickers and punters in the offseason. Besides, the kicking situation always works itself out, right? Right?
Last year's kicking specialists were steady and dependable. Jason Olesnavage stepped into the kicking role and hit 11 of 15 FGs and all but one of his 43 extra point attempts. While his leg was erratic at best inside the 30 yard line (2 of 5), he was 9 of 10 from farther out including a 51 yard FG against Purdue. Punting for the Wolverines was "The Space Emperor from Space" Zoltan Mesko, who was nothing short of awesome. He averaged 44.5 yards per punt and boomed his longest punt a whopping 66 yards. The sum total of bad things I can say about him is his odd decision to attempt a fake punt against MSU while backed up deep in Michigan territory. You may be a hero in space Zoltan, but here on earth you have proven yourself to be a mere mortal in fake punt attempts.
The kicking game this year has largely been the equivalent of a dumpster fire. We have two kickers, both of whom are 1 for 4 on FG attempts this year. To add insult to injury, against Iowa the FG unit allowed a long return after a block while everyone stood around with their hands on their sides, and later in the game two kickoffs went out of bounds in the Wolverines failed comeback attempt.
Yet there is still hope, and it comes in the form of a wide eyed freshman punter who is slowly making Michigan fans forget about Zoltan
Will Hagerup was one of the best high school punters in the nation last year. Ranked as a top three kicker/punter by all the major recruiting services, Hagerup was pursued by a few schools you may have heard of: Florida, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Tennessee, as well as many others across the midwest. After visiting UF, OSU, Wisconsin, and Michigan he signed with the Wolverines and was immediately penciled in to the starting lineup by worried fans everywhere.
Most assumed that Hagerup would be able to easily step in to the role, and some even resorted to detailed statistical comparisons to prove it. Once Hagerup arrived on campus he grabbed ahold of the starting job and no one thought twice. His first career punt
The honeymoon quickly ended the next week as Hagerup struggled on the road. His long punt of 53 yards and meh average of 38 overshadowed some of the struggles he had that day. Of his nine punts, Hagerup had two 21 yard shanks out of bounds as well as a 32 yard punt that went out of bounds well outside the ND redzone. In his first road start Hagerup let his nerves get the best of him and cost the Wolverines valuable field position. The next week Hagerup was only called upon twice. The first punt against UMass was lofted 33 yards for a fair catch at the 15 yard line. The second punt was blocked after a bobbled snap and set the Minutemen up to pull within one score of the Wolverines late in the 4th quarter.
After getting the week off against Bowling Green, Indiana offered a shot at redemption for Will and also a chance to outshine his older brother Chris, the punter for Indiana. On that day, younger got the better of older as Will averaged 48 yards on his four punts compared to a 32 yard average for brother Chris. While Chris was able to place three of his punts inside the 20 compared to one for Will, the key exchange came on series of punts in the fourth quarter. Will kicked a 32 yard punt out of bounds at the Indiana 18 yard line. After the Hoosier offense stalled, Chris shanked a 26 yard punt out at the Wolverine 39 yard line. The Wolverines then failed to pick up a first down and was forced to punt. Will boomed a 58 yard kick for a touchback. Will won the battle of field position by keeping the Indiana offense pinned deep in the 4th quarter, while Chris was unable to push the Wolverines back any farther.
The next week against Michigan State, Hagerup continued to prove himself as the standout of the Wolverine special teams unit by booming 4 punts an average of 47 yards with two inside the 20, effectively neutralizing MSU senior captain Aaron Bates who averaged 45 yards on 4 punts with two downed inside the 20. One Hagerup punt went 62 yards and was downed at the MSU 16, while another 43 yarder was downed at the MSU 18. Hagerup's superb punting also limited the dynamic Spartan returner Keyshawn Martin to just one return of 9 yards, after a 52 yard Hagerup punt from the Michigan 16 yard line.
Against Iowa Hagerup punted even better, with three punts going an average of 50 yards. Two of those punts were downed inside the 20, and one of them was a 63 yarder in the first quarter that effectively flipped the field after the Wolverines were held to a 3-and-out.
While the special teams unit still has a lot of improving to do, Hagerup has moved past his early season jitters and become a great special teams weapon. His strong leg has allowed him to flip the field at key times in the last few games and put the defense in favorable field position (to then squander). Hagerup doesn't have the epic name to replace Zoltan in our hearts, but he is proving to have the punting ability to replace Zoltan on the field. In a year where the defense needs all the help they can get with the struggling "bend but don't break" defense, Hagerup looks like just the man for the job.
Now we just need a cool nickname for him.