Wednesday, August 31, 2011

What to expect: The 2011 special teams

A breakdown of expected results in 2011. Previously: The offense, the defense

You all know the story from last year, but it bears repeating:  Seth Broekhuizen and Brendan Gibbons were a combined 4/14 on field goals, missed two extra points, and were so bad that the offense had to go for it on 4th down in some ridiculous situations. Due to their performance, Michigan extended a scholarship offer to a number of kickers, eventually landing Californian Matt Wile. Word out of camp is that Gibbons will be kicking shorter field goals, and Wile will handle longer kicks. Wake me when it's over.

Gibbons, like the 2008 two-headed quarterback monster Threetidan before him, is someone I would be happy never to see take the field again. Throughout the season last year, Rich Rodriguez frequently said that it was the mental side of things holding the kickers back, but after a point, you just accept that these guys can't get it done. If Wile can't overtake Gibbons by the end of the year, something has gone horribly wrong. I don't know much about the transition from high school to college as a kicker (the goal posts are wider in high school, but I'm not sure if there's a historical falloff for incoming freshmen kickers), Wile was 10/13 his senior season with a long of 49 yards. For perspective, neither Broekhuizen nor Gibbons hit a field goal longer than 37 yards last year. Wile should be an immediate upgrade.

Projecting how these two will kick throughout the year is tough (How many opportunities will they get? How long will the kicks be? etc), but it's worth venturing a guess. While Gibbons is being given a shot early on, I expect him to struggle, making 2/4 or some other uninspiring performance, opening the door for Wile to assume the permanent gig. By the year's end, Michigan's kickers will be somewhere in the combined range of 18/24. The team took remarkably few field goals last year, and rightfully so. Hoke's more conservative approach will see the team taking a lot more chances in the kicking game, and if Wile proves a noticeable improvement over last year (he has to be, right?), that shouldn't be such a harrowing experience.

For what it's worth, Wile will also be handling kickoff duties, which should be uneventful.  If he has the leg to get the ball into the endzone on kickoffs, that would be a bonus.

Last year, Michigan replaced the irreplaceable Zoltan Mesko with freshman punter Will Hagerup. Hagerup had an erratic season, but ended it with a 44-yard average. Everyone was happy with Hagerup and excited to see his progression until he got himself suspended for five games for the dreaded undisclosed violation of team rules. Hagerup was in and out of trouble last year. Hopefully this is a trend that won't continue.

In his absence, Wile will be handling punting duties. Here, best case scenario is no terrible shanks. Even if Wile doesn't boom the ball down the field like Hagerup can, as long as he doesn't commit any huge errors, Michigan should be able to sneak by the first half of the season with Wile puting. When Hagerup returns, punting should be a strong part of Michigan's game, and given Hoke's Carr-like tendencies, an integral part of the gameplan.

Punt/kick returns
Per Michigan's recently released two-deep, the usual suspects return for punt and kick returns. For the former, Junior Hemingway, Drew Dileo, Jeremy Gallon, and Martavious Odoms are listed as return men. How Hoke deploys the various punt returners will be interesting. The last three seasons have been plagued by dropped punts and catastrophic mistakes on special teams. Hemingway and Odoms have both proven themselves to be competent catchers, but neither are particularly explosive on punt returns--though Odoms' returns late last season would be to differ. My guess is that Dileo, who was recruited specifically for punt returns, will be the primary returner by season's end, unless he experiences the same drops and mistakes of the last three years.

As for kick returns, Gallon, Kelvin Grady, and Vincent Smith are listed on the depth chart. With the loss of Darryl Stonum for the year to his DUIshirt, there are very few explosive returners on the roster. Grady may have the shiftiness to make a few guys miss, but no one here has the flat-out speed to take one to the house. Again, we should hope for competence here and let the chips fall as they may.

What to expect
The word for special teams this season is competence. For three years, we've watched this Michigan team fumble and bumble basically every special teams play that didn't feature Zoltan kicking the ball to the moon. If the kickers are competent, that means 3-6 more points per game. If the returners are competent, that means better starting field position and more possessions. This year, all signs point toward competence. But don't expect much more.


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