The Michigan Wolverines had stellar special teams play in 2016. From Heisman-finalist Jabrill Peppers flipping the field on kick and punt returns to Kenny Allen dropping dimes in the punt game and putting the rock through the posts in the kicking game, the 2016 special teams were on point.
Last year, however, was a completely different story.
The Wolverines had to break in a new placekicker, punter and return men. Some of it was good, but a lot wasn’t so good.
With that said, here is who I think will be manning these special teams duties in 2018.
K: Quinn Nordin, RS SO
The man, the myth, the Wild Thing.
Nordin started his college career off with a bang — nailing 4-of-6 field goals, and two of at least 50 yards, and all three extra points tries against Florida. He followed that up with five weeks without a miss of any kind, and then...
Then he began to miss. It all started at Penn State with a missed extra point. Then he had three straight weeks with a missed field goal, and had another missed extra point against Minnesota (and an ear full from Harbaugh when he missed the extra point against Maryland).
But he was 5-for-5 in his last three games from field goals, but still missed an extra point against Ohio State. Overall, it was a wildly inconsistent year for the Wild Thing.
Regardless if he keeps his Ricky Vaughn haircut or not, Nordin will have to pull it together and consistently produce in 2018 to keep Michigan in tight games. Jim Harbaugh infamously slept over his house to ensure he committed to Michigan, so you have to be somewhat special for that to happen.
All in all, Nordin has little-to-no competition and will be the starting kicker for Michigan for the foreseeable future.
P: Brad Robbins, SO
Another specialist who struggled in 2017, Robbins didn’t even begin the year as the starter.
Walk-on Will Hart was the main man punting the ball the first three games of the year, but Robbins took over at Purdue.
Robbins punted the ball 64 times in 2017 for an average of 40.36 yards, a long of 58 yards and just four 50+ yard punts in total. He also only punted the ball inside the 20 yard line 19 times. For someone who was named the top punter in his class, according to Kornblue Kicking, you would think Robbins would have been able to handle the workload, especially have a season behind Allen.
The struggles for Robbins were so bad, Harbaugh elected to give Hart a punt opportunity against South Carolina in the Outback Bowl.
But given that both guys were fresh starters in 2017, and that Robbins is the scholarship-athlete, I am giving the starting gig to him. There shouldn’t be a huge competition here, and I think Robbins will rebound from a mostly-down freshman season.
KR: Ambry Thomas, SO
Another first-year specialist was cornerback Ambry Thomas.
By year’s end, the Detroit native had the most kick returns (20) on the team. Wide receiver Kekoa Crawford (eight) and safety Brad Hawkins (three) also had some returns, but Thomas took over the main duties during the Penn State game, when he had three returns for 87 yards and a long of 43.
I would expect guys like Donovan Peoples-Jones and Chris Evans to duke it out with Thomas in fall camp for the job, but I really like what I saw out of Thomas last season, even though he was the main kickoff returner for half the year. I look for Thomas to have a great 2018 as the Wolverines’ main kick returner and next-man-up cornerback.
PR: Donovan Peoples-Jones, SO
No one is going to take DPJ’s punt return role away from him. Right off the bat in the Florida game as a true freshman in 2017, it was evident he gave no F*&%s about what the punt coverage looked like — he was gonna return it.
Like Nordin and Robbins, Peoples-Jones had his fair share of struggles in 2017. He was benched against Cincinnati for turning the ball over on a punt, and then returned a punt 79 yards for a touchdown against Air Force one week later.
Fast forward to The Game, and he nearly took one to the house.
Will Michigan’s special teams be better in 2018? I fully expect it to. All four of Michigan’s main specialists last year were doing it at the college level for the very first time. With that season — and spring and fall camps — under their belts, all four guys should continue to grow in 2018. With that, we should see much-needed improvement from the entire unit.