Special teams can make or breaks teams
Special teams historically has been a game changer in Ann Arbor. Desmond Howard and Charles Woodson made plays that cemented their legacies on special teams. Steve Breaston and Jabrill Peppers had the ability to change a game in the blink of an eye with the way they returned punts and kickoffs.
A solid special teams unit is often what separates a good team from a great team. One big play or blunder can make the difference in a game or season. Being able to flip field position with regularity and give the defense a chance to make stops can make the difference between winning and losing. This 2017 Michigan team will need a solid special teams unit to be the best it can be.
Overall, last year’s special teams unit was pretty solid. The special teams unit performed well in their first year under linebackers/special teams coordinator Chris Partridge. The maize and blue led the country in blocked punts and had 0 punts blocked against them. Expect nothing different this year in terms of getting after punters and kickers. The special teams unit loses four starters from last year, a much different story than the defensive side of the ball.
There were some crucial lapses, though. The three missed field goals against Wisconsin, the kick return in the Orange Bowl and the facemask on the punt return in the Iowa game. These are game-changing mistakes that will have to be avoided with this younger, inexperienced Michigan team. But in large part, the unit did a very good job throughout the year flipping field position when they needed to, especially in Columbus (JT was short).
Who will return punts?
The days of knowing Peppers would be back returning punts are over, and now the job is up for the taking. There was a buzz in the crowd when it was fourth and long and the opposing team was forced to punt the ball to Jabrill Peppers. No one can replace Peppers in that respect, but someone who is fully capable and electrifying in their own respects will return punts and kickoffs.
Nate Johnson, a 5-foot-11 sophomore wide out will likely return punts this year. We didn't see much of Johnson in his freshman campaign, but his high school senior year film suggests he’s lightning quick and can make guys miss in the open field.
Who will return kick offs?
There hasn't been a whole lot of hinting from anyone at who is going to be back returning kicks to start the season. Names like Peoples-Jones, McDoom, David Long, Lavert Hill and Ambry Thomas are names that come to mind. Plenty of young guys will have the chance to compete to win the job. Back in the spring, Chris Partridge suggested as many as 15 guys would have the chance at the job. I would love to see DPJ and McDoom back there returning kicks to start the season, but I trust that whoever wins the job is fully capable.
Field goal kicking and kickoffs
I expect redshirt freshman Quinn Nordin to win the place kicking job over walk-on Kyle Seychel, sophomore James Foug and sophomore Ryan Tice. Nordin was a highly sought after recruit in the 2015 class. Harbaugh made national news by having a sleepover at his house in his effort to flip Nordin from Penn State. Nordin hit a 48-yard FG in the spring game that looked to be good from 60 (see the kick below at 0:42). The only one of these kickers that has seen game action is Ryan Tice, who missed a field goal vs Wisconsin last year. He came on after Kenny Allen had missed his first two field goals of that game. There is a competition to see who wins the kickoff job as well, but Harbaugh has suggested it will not be the winner of the place kicking job. Harbaugh wants to use multiple guys to cover kickoffs, punts and field goals.
Who is the starting punter?
Freshman Brad Robbins is “neck and neck” with Will Hart in the punting competition, according to Harbaugh. Robbins was a top-five punter in the country in the class of 2016 and I expect him to win the job. Harbaugh has said that he hasn't seen a freshman come in and punt as well as Robbins has, so expect it to be a competitive race that comes down to the last few days. I’ve got Robbins winning this one.
Trust the recruiting
There will be a lot of unproven, young players in the special teams mix this year, but trust the recruiting Harbaugh has done. Trust that these young guns will come in prepared and more than ready to go. Michigan has had some great punt and kick returners over the years. Howard, Woodson, Breaston and Peppers are some of the names that first come to mind. This 2017 team has a very special group of athletes, and you can expect to see a home run hitter returning both punts and kicks. Nordin and Robbins were both highly recruited kickers and punters and are eager for some early playing time. I expect these guys to win the starting jobs and compete to the best of their abilities this season.