After losing both Matt Wile and Will Hagerup, Michigan has near-minimal in-game experience in the kicking game. Of the four kicker/punters that will be on the roster this fall, only redshirt junior Kenny Allen has registered any stats...which was a 51-yard punt in the final minutes of Michigan's 59-9 romp over Central Michigan to start the '13 season. Granted, the other three players haven't had a chance to perform yet: Ryan Tice and Andrew David are incoming freshmen, and Kyle Seychel was redshirted last year.
Aside from the kicking portion of special teams, the two return positions seem to be up for grabs according to special teams coordinator John Baxter. When asked if he has "some playmakers back there," he proceeded to pull out a piece of paper listing 14 Michigan players that he'd been trying out, including everyone from Dennis Norfleet to Jabrill Peppers to Brian Cole to Wyatt Shallman (see below for the complete list).
With all this in mind, let's take a look at the main special teams positions, what we know, and who looks to be in line for the starting job.
Since Andrew David is the only kicker/punter under scholarship, everyone assumes David will be Michigan's kicker when he arrives in the fall. However, much like the rest of the staff, Baxter isn't guaranteeing any spots at this point in time. Right now, Baxter's working out the three preferred walk-on legs currently in Ann Arbor - Allen, Seychel, and Tice - but none of them are kicking at the uprights. Instead, Baxter's stressing technique and mechanics: "I'm taking these guys, and they're kicking way less than they probably ever have, and we're rebuilding them from the ground up."
This methodology means that we definitely will not know who the starting kicker is until David arrives on campus and shows Baxter what he can do. In regards to the freshmen kicker, Baxter had this to say:
So, I know Andrew David is coming, for example, in the fall and he's a good player and we are happy to have him coming, but at this point I have to go under the assumption that we have to coach these players here and make them effective and expect them to win for us and then when a new player comes in that can impact or change a situation then that's gravy but I'm taking this opportunity to coach the kickers and punters and snappers and make those guys as effective as they can possibly be.
Even so, it's hard to imagine David doesn't lock up the starting role in time for the season opener against Utah. His resume warrants as much: four-year letterman and a bunch of school records, including a 58-yard field goal, the fourth-longest in Ohio high school football history. Unless he completely fails to adapt to Baxter's teachings, this spot is David's to lose.
Likely Starter: Andrew David
After patiently waiting for three years, Kenny Allen looks to be first in line for the vacant punter position in Ann Arbor. Again, nothing is set in stone since Baxter is trying out both Allen and Tice as punters for the time being. While Allen's aforementioned punt from two years ago isn't all that important when evaluating him, it should be noted that he was a well-regarded recruit back in 2011 and has a strong leg from what I can gather. Unfortunately, there's not much to go on for either of these guys. Furthermore, we shouldn't expect this to change anytime soon since nobody in Maize and Blue will be punting in the spring game as Baxter's already shot that down: "We won't kick at all in the spring game [except] maybe field goals or something."
However, things could get interesting if Baxter ends up wooing Australian football kicker/punter Blake O'Neill. O'Neill was set to visit Michigan yesterday, but there hasn't been any word yet on how that meeting went. Prior to last year, he had only played Australian football (Note: the AFL is brutal and awesome), but then decided to try out the American-brand at Weber State. At the Football Championship Subdivision school, O'Neill shined and made a name for himself by averaging 44.1 yards per punt with a long of 74 yards, which would have ranked him second in the Big Ten. Since he's eligible for a graduate transfer, O'Neill could come to Michigan and play this year.
If O'Neill comes to Ann Arbor, I think he'll end up earning the starting job based on his previous playing experience. However, without an Australian infusion, I think Kenny Allen beats out the competition.
Likely Starter: Kenny Allen (or Blake O'Neill)
From Adam Schnepp at MGoBlog, here's the complete list of names that Baxter has tried out as a returner:
[Jourdan] Lewis, [Delano] Hill, [Dennis] Norfleet, [Freddy] Canteen, [Blake] Countess, [Jehu] Chesson, [Amara] Darboh, [Jabrill] Peppers, [Brian] Cole, [Jeremy] Clark, [Antonio] Whitfield, [Wyatt] Shallman, [Jack] Wangler, [Brandon] Watson.
So who will actually get the nod come Sept. 3? Nobody knows, really. It could be any player on Michigan's roster with an ounce of speed and playmaking ability. Baxter is doing his due diligence to find the best player for the job and to stress the fundamentals first, so much so that through the first two weeks of spring practice, he had "not even introduced a ball to a drill yet."
The presumed favorites would be Dennis Norfleet on kick returns, and Jabrill Peppers on punt returns, but that's based solely on the past (and before Peppers was lost to injury last year). It's hard to imagine another Wolverine taking the spot of Dancing Dennis Norfleet, especially since he holds the record for most kickoff return yards in Michigan history at 2,203. However, it seems that every year is the year that Norfleet will break out as a game-changing player, and that hasn't happened yet. He's still looking for his first kickoff returned for a touchdown, and there wouldn't be a better time to accomplish that goal than during his final season.
As for Peppers, assuming he stays healthy, I think it's a safe bet that we'll see what he's made of as a punt returner this season, since he was set to fill that role last year. Furthermore, Baxter has nothing but praise in regards to Peppers:
One, he's really intelligent. Two, he's really explosive. Three, he's really passionate. And four, he might be in the top five most coachable guys we have. You ask him to do it, and he's doing it better than anybody else.
Baxter may be trying out a host of players to return the ball, but the two frontrunners seem to be the same as expected.
Likely Starters: Dennis Norfleet on kickoffs and Jabrill Peppers on punts
Most people don't think twice about long snappers since you tend to only know their names when they make a mistake. Could you name Michigan's long snapper from last year? No? Good. That's just what he wants. After earning a rare scholarship as a long snapper from Brady Hoke back in 2013, Scott Sypniewski was redshirted before becoming the full-time long snapper last year, playing in all 12 games and earning his first varsity letter. He's likely being challenged by redshirt freshman Andrew Robinson, since that's the culture Baxter's creating during spring practice. Baxter's referred to them as "two good, quality long-snappers," but I'd be surprised if Robinson jumps Sypniewski on the depth chart simply due to Sypniewski's in-game experience. However, that's just speculation, and anything can happen between today and September.
Likely Starter: Scott Sypniewski
So that's where Michigan stands in terms of special teams. As Baxter put it:
Everybody wants to know: 'Who would be the guy if we play today?' Well, we don't play today. It's March, and we've got six months to figure that out. Let's say Andrew David is in the fold. I can't put him on the depth chart right now. You have to evaluate the talent right up until it's time to go.
The only guarantee is that Michigan won't be consistently sending out 10 players in their punt formation.