2013 Season Preview: The Special Teams

Kevin C. Cox

Michigan's kicking game looks to once again be in good hands, but the return game will be somewhere that Michigan once again tries to ignite a spark.

Consistency in the kicking game has been a long time coming. It seemed over the past few years that when the Wolverines had a reliable kicker, there were punting struggles, and vice versa.

Brady Hoke has not only done a good job filling the depth chart at the kicking positions through recruiting and preferred walk-on placements, but his staff has been a calming influence — for the most part. Will Hagerup is looking at yet another suspension, this time spending the season away from the team in hopes of earning his way back into the coaches' good graces. While Michigan will miss his big leg, all is not lost.

Kickers

Place Kicker Punter Kick Off
Starter RS- Sr. Brendan Gibbons Jr. Matt Wile Jr. Matt Wile
Backup Jr. Matt Wile RS-Fr. Kenny Allen RS-Fr. Kenny Allen

Brunette girls. Comforting words to Michigan fans that at one point in time would probably have preferred that some actual brunette girl give kicking a try and maybe give Brendan Gibbons a break. His first year of playing time in 2010 saw him go 1/5 on field goals before losing the job and then regaining it later because it was just that kind of year full of suck.

Since then? Gibbons has been nearly automatic anywhere inside around 40 yards. In his last two years he has converted 13/17 and 16/18 field goals with a career long of 52 yards. At this point it is hard to remember that there was once a time when everyone wanted him run out of town.

Second in line for the place-kicking job is also now Michigan's starting punter by default. Matt Wile brings a lot of talent and versatility to the team. He is also the backup kicker, having hit two of three field goals last year (48- and 52-yards) and the kick off specialist. with a career average over 60 yards per kickoff.

He has also served as Will Hagerup's understudy in those common occurrences when Hagerup had made his way into the doghouse. Wile's 2011 punting average was over 41 yards/punt, but things dropped a bit last year, down to 36 yards/punt. Most of this, as Kyle Meinke pointed out earlier in the year when the Hagerup suspension was announced, is due to Wile being the team's preferred pooch punter. One attribute he brings that Hagerup struggled with is consistency. Wile isn't going to bomb one 70-yards, but he probably won't shank it either.

Behind Wile is redshirt freshman Kenny Allen, who would most likely assume both punting and kickoff duties in the event of an injury. He has gotten praise in practice and should be a serviceable option.

Returners

There is no chart for this one, because things aren't quite so clean cut.

Michigan gets back its two primary return options from a year ago. Dennis Norfleet handled kickoff return duties and kept everyone on the edge of their seat whenever he got a chance. He averaged 23.6 yards/return and had a long of 38, but there were multiple times all year when he was just one man away from breaking one big.

On the other hand, Jeremy Gallon was Michigan's main punt return option, and has been for years. Gallon has struggled with when and where to field punts, and his return averages don't jump off the page. Last year he managed just 5.5 yards/return after averaging over 10 the season before.

Michigan will look to work in other options at both spots. Old reliable is slot receiver Drew Dileo. The senior has returned both punts and kicks, and while his athleticism isn't jaw-dropping, he is capable of making guys miss and most importantly he makes smart decisions.

The coaches are looking for someone more capable of fireworks, and that is why they have been trying out two true freshman in the return game during fall camp. Jourdan Lewis out of Detroit's Cass Tech and Channing Stribling, a sleeper recruit from North Carolina both had impressive high school return careers, and each brings a lot of athleticism to the return game at Michigan. Whether either can unseat the established players ahead of them, is another question. Norfleet's job is likely safe, and he could even get a look at returning punts. Gallon would be the odds on favorite to give up the starting duties as punt returner.

* * *

Overall Michigan should once again have solid special teams play, but with no real threat established at punt returner, and the big-legged Will Hagerup sitting the year out, Michigan will lack the really powerful dimension that would allow for huge plays in the punting game. With both a solid offense and defense to handle most of the heavy lifting, Michigan will just need the special teams to avoid mistakes, which this group looks capable of doing.

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