Thursday, October 27, 2011

Progress report: The 2011 special teams

Since it's Michigan's bye week, it's a good time to take stock of where the team is currently in relation to where we expected them to be preseason. Previously: Where are they now: The team, the team, the team, The defense, The offense

Preseason expectations:
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.
Best case scenario for the 2011 season was a competent kicking game, competent returners, and no awful busts. For the most part, this has been the case. Despite uninspiring returns from the kick and punt return units and a few misses from Brendan Gibbons, Michigan has been spectacularly average. This is universal improvement over the endless stream of mistakes from the special teams last over the last three seasons.

Preseason expectations:
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. 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.
Despite being given a scholarship to kick footballs through the uprights, true freshman Matt Wile hasn't attempted so much as an extra point. This ranks somewhere in the range of mildly disappointing, given the team's field goal struggles in the previous few years. Returning harbinger of doom Brendan Gibbons, meanwhile is 4/6 on field goals and 32/33 on extra points. While these are uninspiring numbers, Gibbons has at least been close on his missed field goal attempts as opposed to last year where, well, you know.

Before the season, Hoke said that Wile would be the kicker on long-distance field goals, but Gibbons has seen all kicking duty. I don't know if this is poor performance by Wile in practice or simply a coin flip, but for whatever reason, Hoke appears to be sticking with Gibbons throughout the season. He's been good enough that Michigan was able to run a fake field goal because MSU actually thought we could kick from that distance. This is a bonus.

Kickoffs, as expected, are being handled by Wile who has proven an immediately improvement over Gibbons. Wile has the leg to get the ball into the endzone on kickoffs, which pushes returners back at least 10 yards from where they were catching the ball last season. Unfortunately, there's something horribly wrong with Michigan's coverage. I don't know if it's getting out of your lanes or just poor tackling, but Michigan's kick coverage is broken. I don't understand a ton about the fundamentals of kickoff coverage, but I know that Michigan shouldn't be allowing returns to consistently bring the ball beyond the 30 yard line.

Grand Statement of Optimism: I don't know, Gibbons is 4/6 or something? His performance seems sustainable and Michigan hasn't kicked less than one field goal per game. If Gibbons can stay consistent within 30 yards, I won't curse his name every time he steps on the field.

Grand Statement of Pessimism: Gibbons 2010. Michigan is currently tied for 93rd in the country with a 66% success rate.

Wet Owl sez:

Preseason expectations:
In [Hagerup's] 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.
With Hagerup missing the first five games of the season, Wile did an admiral job holding down the fort. Zoltan he was not, but he got the job done, averaging 41.1 yards on 14 kicks. Hagerup's return, however, has been uninspiring. He is averaging a meager 33.6 yards per kick on 10 attempts. You would expect Hagerup's numbers to resemble those of last year eventually (43.6 yards per kick; a long of 72, wheeee).

The bigger issue punting has been the coverage downfield. MGoBlog has been railing against the use of the traditional punt formation all season and with good reason:

Michigan's return to a traditional punt formation puts a burden on two lone gunner tasked with tackling the returner. This can only produce bad things. Unfortunately, it doesn't appear like Hoke will be changing this strategy anytime soon.

Grand Statement of Optimism: Hagerup proved last year that he has a good-to-great leg. His early-season struggles are probably just a statistical anomaly.

Grand Statement of Pessimism: Traditional punting

Wet Owl sez:
Punt/kick returns
Preseason expectations:
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.
This has been a constant source of frustration this season, though not in the areas you'd expect. Castoff Jeremy Gallon has developed into a sure-handed punt returner after being a travesty the past two years. Though he can't make a ton of yardage after fielding most punts (largely due to the spread/rugby punt formation), Gallon has caught everything that's catchable without any crippling fumbles. I don't know how the coaching staff managed this, but it's a testament to their skills.

Kickoff returns are another story. For whatever reason, the coaches have Vincent Smith as the primary kick returner. Smith is emphatically not a kick returner. Not only does he lack the prototypical speed to take it to the house, he barely gets beyond the 20 yard line on most returns. Michigan is currently 111th in kickoff returns and averaging just over 18 yards per return. What's odd is that the current make-up of the roster is that of speedy slot receiver types that are great in space. You'd think that someone (Grady, Dileo, etc) would be a viable replacement, but for whatever reason, Hoke has elected to use the team's #1 running back--a guy who couldn't take a long run to the house because he's just not built like that--as the primary kick returner. If I had a dollar for every time I screamed at the TV because Smith was returning a kickoff, I would have 7 dollars.

Grand Statement of Optimism: Gallon can catch punts and doesn't make my eyes bleed.

Grand Statement of Pessimism: Vincent Smith on kickoff returns makes my eyes bleed. Same amount of eye blood loss.

Wet Owl sez:
Mid-season report
Though it hasn't been pretty, the special teams have mostly gotten the job done. Clear improvement from Gibbons is an added bonus but the lack of Wile appearances bothers me. If the team can correct its coverage issues on kickoffs and switch to a rugby punt formation, special teams could be something we don't have to constantly think and worry about.

Grand Statement of Optimism: Hagerup will get better. Gibbons is functional. Wile can force touchbacks on kickoffs.

Grand Statement of Pessimism: Vincent Smith. Eye bleeding.

Wet Owl sez:
Ed. Note: In keeping with the series, I was going to do a coaches progress report, but I think most of that content would be redundant as it's already covered in the offense and defense posts.


Tim Sullivan said...

Gibbons is 93rd in the country with .67 made field goals per game, not a .67 success rate (though that is indeed his success rate). That's mostly on account of his few attempts - he's tied for second-fewest attempts out of any kicker in the top 100.

His 2/3 conversion rate is good for a 6-way tie for 71st in the country (still not outstanding, but again: sample size).

Chris Gaerig said...

I think you're wrong. Michigan has played 7 games and he's attempted 6 FGs. That's .85 FG per game.

Tim Sullivan said...

Well, you could, like, look at the stats, which are sorted by made field goals/game. The NCAA only counts Michigan as having played 6 games, and he's made 4 field goals in those games. That's .67 made field goals per game.

Chris Gaerig said...

Blast, so it is. Any idea why the NCAA only recognizes 6 games? Michigan has only played against FBS opponents. Or does the NCAA really think that little of Minnesota?

Tim Sullivan said...

The Western game didn't count toward statistics because they didn't complete 3 quarters.

Chris Gaerig said...

Ha, I just remember that and was coming here to post the same thing.

Thanks for remembering these things better than me and for the stat correction.

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