No unit on Michigan’s football team returns the talent and experience that the special teams group does. They bring back a pair of kickers who’ve both made multiple 45+ yard field goals, a punt returner and kick returner with touchdowns in their respective disciplines, and one of the best punters in the country. Simply put, Michigan has options; this unit is loaded.
Chris Partridge, one of the top assistants in the country, looks to continue the positive trajectory his units tend to follow. It’s a spoil of riches at nearly every position.
The Wolverines are in the fortunate spot of having two very capable kickers. The end of 2018 suggests Jake Moody will continue to fill the starting role, but Quinn Nordin still finds himself on the roster and in the hunt.
Moody does not have Nordin’s natural leg strength, but he was near automatic in the back half of last season. The in-state sophomore went 10-of-11 on the year, including a perfect 10-10 mark from inside of 50 yards. He was also 5-of-5 on PATs. In college football, the best ability is
availability consistency from kickers, and Moody was as consistent as they came.
Also competing for the job is the polarizing Nordin. The redshirt junior started the year as the main guy beginning the season 8-of-9 before struggling in October and eventually relinquishing the role. Harbaugh’s favorite sleepover companion has all the leg talent in the world but lost his confidence half way through last year, sending his season off the rails.
While Moody is clearly in the driver’s seat, Nordin provides an experienced option with a big leg that can be used as a weapon on longer kicks or ones near the end of halves.
Will Hart returns to the punting duties this year and should be a contender once again for the Ray Guy Award. Truth be told, there may not have been a player on the team who benefited more from last season’s strength and conditioning change. In 2018, Hart upped his average yards per kick from 37 to 47 yards. Punting went from one of the Wolverines’ Achilles Heels in 2017 to a legitimate strength a year later.
Hart wasn’t only consistently good, he made splashy, impactful plays. In eight of the 12 regular season games, Hart boomed a punt for more than 50 yards. Where he could improve is in his tactical punting. While pinning 15 kicks inside the 20 is a solid number, that was paired with nine kicks that went through the end zone. Going forward, if Hart can get more consistent in his ability to pin teams deep, Michigan adds yet another weapon.
As previously mentioned, Michigan has a ton of talent returning on its return units. Ambry Thomas handled kick offs and could be asked to return to the role in the fall. He’s best remembered for scoring Michigan’s first touchdown of the season to close out the first half in South Bend.
While Thomas is a great option, Harbaugh may prefer for the junior corner to focus on his defensive responsibilities, handing the return job over to someone else. If spring practices are to be believed, sophomore Ronnie Bell is the leader in the clubhouse there. While Bell does not have Thomas’ straight-ahead speed, he does have superb vision and quickness in the hole.
The punt return section could be a copy-paste of the kick return. #ReturningStarter is still in the picture, but Bell took the majority of the spring reps. This case is slightly different though as Donovan Peoples-Jones was battling a mysterious injury. While Peoples-Jones is expected to be ready for the season, I think it’s fair to expect Harbaugh to try to protect his No. 1 receiver. That means Bell could be doing double-duty.
DPJ had a punt return touchdown in each of his first two seasons. A long-strider, there are very few people in the country who can catch and bring him down when he gets a full head of steam. Bell provides a different look, replacing speed and strength with some more shiftiness and quickness.
Mike Sainristil, a freshman who has turned a lot of heads since arriving on campus, is also in the running for the job. Sainristil, the poster boy for Josh Gattis’ #SpeedInSpace campaign, is someone many people expect to make an impact early. If Harbaugh and Partridge split up kick and punt duties as they’ve done in the past, I think you’ll see one of Bell or Sainristil handle kicks while the other handles punts.
Going into 2019, Michigan has a strong mix of elite talent and solid depth behind them. Last year’s opening day starters at kicker, kick returner and punt returner could be specialty guys this year, and none of them are bad options. With questions about a new playbook on offense and new talent on defense, Michigan fans can rest easy knowing their special teams unit should be one of the best in America.