2012 Michigan Season Preview: Special Teams

Brendan Gibbons has come a long way. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
2012 Michigan Season Preview
* Secondary
* Running Backs
* Linebackers
* WRs and TEs
* Defensive Line
* Offensive Line

One of the developments of the 2011 season that often gets pushed to the side in any discussion of said season's completely unpredictable awesomeness and full on transformation from 2010's blindly frustrating cornucopia of errors and things that made me want to drink ALL THE WHISKEY, is the sudden and quiet competence of the special teams units. Units that a year before were arguably a larger and more head scratch-inducing disaster than the defense -- which is really saying something.

It got so bad in 2010 that I would leave the room during field goal attempts, and even sometimes extra point attempts in tight games. Things were to the point where I had already given up hope completely and just wanted to be as far away from things as possible.

The nadir, in this humble blogger's opinion, was the blocked field goal against Iowa. The ball dropped to the 15-yard line, Michigan's FG unit trudged off the field with shoulders slumped, and Iowa's Tyler Sash picked the ball up and returned it 37 yards to Michigan's side of the field, eventually setting up an Adam Robinson touchdown. If you wanted to sum up Michigan's special teams play in the Rich Rodriguez era you would be hard pressed to come up with a better example of blown execution and downright ludicrous inattention to the situation at hand.

So when Michigan went from that to this:

...and this:

...you just have to shake your head and laugh. Or hold your middle finger high in the air to the southwest.

Michigan's special teams aren't perfect, but after 2010, hoooo boy was any improvement like a breath of fresh air. Now we just have to wait for things to get even better with everyone coming back.

Kicker

Starter: Brendan Gibbons (RS-Jr.) 6'1, 230lbs.

Backup: Matt Wile (So.) 6'2, 214lbs.

Brunette girls.

That is really all you need to know about the maturation of Brendan Gibbons from hair-pulling special teams liability to Sugar Bowl-winning kicker.

Gibbons was highly rated when he got to campus, and even with a shaky kicking game in 2009, he redshirted -- not a good sign. When 2010 rolled around he was then thrust into a competiton with walk-on Seth Broekhuizen for the starting job. Strike two. Then Gibbons actually lost the starting spot to Broekhuizen halfway through the year. Strike three. Pack it in, the kid's a bust.

In that first year, Gibbons was unequivocally terrible. Hell, Broekhuizen was 3-9 on FG attempts in 2010 and Gibbons couldn't even top that. One for five. One twenty-four yard field goal. Five tries.

Coming into the 2011 season, nobody gave Gibbons much of a chance with freshman Matt Wile now on campus, and when it looked like Gibbons was making a push at the starting job everyone collectively lost their shit. Brian sums it up nicely:

The idea of Gibbons hitting the field again gives me hives. At least this time around there's another option, though it's an option that lost out to Brendan Gibbons. Guh.

Expectations were not high.

Then a funny thing happened: Gibbons put it together. Over the course of the 2011 season he hit 13 of 17 field goal attempts with a long of 43 yards. Those included: a 42-yarder into the wind against Nebraska; his longest field goal (43 yards) with two minutes left against Ohio State to push the lead to 6 points; and the aforementioned Sugar Bowl game winner in overtime.

This year should be much the same. Gibbons probably doesn't have the leg to push 50-yards, but he has shown a solid amount of consistency on the ones he should make. For an offense as good as Michigan's will be in 2012, that is pretty much all you need. If Gibbons struggles or gets hurt, Matt Wile has already shown a very powerful leg both on kickoffs (where he will be the starter) and punts.

And on a personal note, I no longer leave the room when Brendan Gibbons kicks.

Grade: B+ (Starter B+, Backup B)

Punter

Starter: Will Hagerup (Jr.) 6'4, 227lbs.

Backup: Matt Wile (So.) 6'2, 214lbs.

Now to be clear, Hagerup hasn't won the job yet. Both Matt Wile and walk-on Kenny Allen are competing. Still, Hagerup brings something to the table that neither of those two can touch: a monster Zoltan-esque leg.

Hagerup appeared on campus in 2010 in the wake of Zoltan's departure to the NFL, and the rangy freshman was immediately tapped as the heir apparent to Michigan's most beloved punter. That first year was almost better than anyone could have believed. Hagerup put up a season long average of 43.6 yards per punt -- putting him second all-time in Michigan history behind, you guessed it, Zoltan.

Then something happened. We don't know what it is. Nobody has ever talked to the media about it, but Hagerup was suspended for the Ohio State game at the end of the 2010 season, then for the first four games of 2011.

When Hagerup finally returned to the lineup he struggled to gain his form from the previous year. In nine games he averaged just 36 yards per punt with a long of 50 yards and five downed inside the opp. 20 yard line.

It was Wile who stepped in for Hagerup during the sophomore's struggles, and Wile put together a solid season averaging 41.6 yards per punt on 17 punts with three over 50 yards and four downed inside the opp. 20 yard line.

In the end it is Hagerup with the higher ceiling. This was a freshman that boomed punts of62-, 63- and 72-yards as a freshman. If and when Hagerup can regain the consistency that made him one of the best punters in the Big Ten as a freshman, the sky is the limit (Sorry, folks. Had to say it).

Even if Hagerup struggles, Wile appears to be a good secondary option as he enters his second year in the program.

Grade: A- (Starter A-, Backup B+)

Kick Returner

Starter: ?

Contenders: Dennis Norfleet (Fr.) 5'7, 161lbs; Justice Hayes (RS-Fr.) 5'10, 183lbs; Vincent Smith (Sr.) 5'6, 175lbs; Blake Countess (So.) 5'10, 180lbs

Michigan currently has four different players auditioning for the role of kickoff returner. Vincent Smith has already returned a few kicks (eight of them to be exact) thus far in his career and has not done very much with them. Justice Hayes and Dennis Norfleet are the last two recruits brought in for the hybrid third-down, scat-back role, and both have the speed and athleticism to turn into solid returners. Countess is also apparently getting some opportunities in practice. Who gets the start is anyone's guess. Look for all four to get at least some chance to return unless one grabs the starting job in a big way.

Not that it will matter with the rule changes to kickoffs. Teams will now kick off from the 35-yard line instead of the 30, and touchbacks will go out to the 25-yard line instead of the 20. Kick returns just became a whole lot less likely.

Grade: Inc.

Punt Returner

Starter: Jeremy Gallon (RS-Jr.) 5'8, 187lbs

In 2010 Jeremy Gallon was an unmitigated disaster returning punts, but in 2011 he turned it around nicely and put together a solid -- if somewhat unspectacular -- season.

Gallon isn't the kind of take-it-to-the-house threat that some returners are, but after a solid season in 2011 he seems like he could be a reliable returner capable of breaking the occasional 20-30 yard return. That is a long way from "HOLD ON TO THE DAMN BALL".

Grade: B

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