Michigan Football Preview 2015

2015 Michigan Football Preview

The Wolverine: Covering University of Michigan Football and Sports

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Page 120 of 163

THE WOLVERINE 2015 FOOTBALL PREVIEW ■ 119 SPECIAL TEAMS also topped the nation in fewest punt return yards allowed in 2004 and 2005, while return man A.J. Jefferson led the nation in kickoff return yardage in 2007. In 2013, USC ranked second in the country in blocked punts (three) and fourth in blocked kicks (six). The Trojans also scored three punt return touchdowns and allowed zero punt return yards in eight of 14 games. In 2012 they notched four blocked kicks, includ- ing one returned for a touchdown, and ranked fourth in the nation in kickoff returns (26.4-yard average) There's no magic formula for great special teams, Baxter said. "It's a fairly cliché phrase, but they don't care how much you know until they know how much you care," Baxter said of his players over the years. "The mantra for this staff is to care about players, then coach them and make them technicians. "We made a lot of the fact that in the entire spring we never took a team rep. Everything was small group technique and fundamentals, because in the kicking game, to be good at it, it's different than being on offense and defense. "There are certain things that are com- mon sets of fundamentals in football — balance, changing direction, making con- tact. You do those things every position on every down. The difference in the kicking game is the spatial awareness. The only player that really handles a massive amount of space is the safeties on defense. Every- body else plays in a finite area, fixed posi- tion before the snap of the football. "In the kicking game, when you've got a ball kicked off from the 35 and start to run it back, or you have a ball snapped back- ward 15 yards and punt it between 40 and 50 yards, you're looking at a range of 65 yards every time. It's the spatial awareness you have to teach." Football is so highly personnel packaged today, Baxter noted, that substitutions are almost like hockey line changes when it comes to trying to keep players fresh. Start- ers will undoubtedly play on the special teams, he said, but he also guaranteed play- ers who might be an afterthought in the summer would also end up on coverage or return teams. The situation at punter and kicker seems much more cut and dried. The Wolverines have lost both starting kickoff specialist/placekicker Matt Wile and punter Will Hagerup, but there's solid competition at both positions. Punter should be a battle between redshirt junior Kenny Allen and graduate transfer Blake O'Neill (Weber State). Kicker should come down to redshirt freshman walk-on Kyle Seychel and incoming fresh- man scholarship kicker Andrew David. Both Allen and Seychel spent much of their springs kicking into nets rather than kicking live, by Baxter's choice. "Kenny Allen is already here, and Kyle Seychel is already here. I've worked with them this spring, and they're good players," Baxter said. "Everybody has made a big deal about Blake, but he's not coming here with any guarantees that he's playing. He's going to have to compete with the guys that are here." That competition should make everyone better, including the talented O'Neill. Baxter's ties in Australia and in Utah, where his father coached, helped bring O'Neill to Ann Arbor. O'Neill was an Australian rules football player before traveling to the United States, and his desire for a graduate degree brought him to Michigan. "Blake is a very, very talented athlete," Baxter said. "He came to this country from Melbourne. Kids in this country, when they're 5 or 10 years old, they don't punt. The way they pass in that country is to punt. In Australian rules football, you start doing that when you're 5 years old." O'Neill punted 62 times with a 44.1-yard average for Weber State last year, including 18 punts of 50 yards or more. He downed 25 punts inside the opponent's 20-yard line. "We're looking for a skillset that's going to translate," Baxter said. "Punter is the hardest position on our team to find in a hurry. There probably aren't five out there in high school football that are ready to play Division I football at a championship level." Allen has punted only once in his career, for 51 yards in 2013. He'll have a chance to handle the holding duties on field goals, and he's a dark horse for kickoff and kicking duties. "Kenny kicks off and is an accurate field goal kicker," Baxter said. "And An- drew David might be talented, but I would never say to Kyle, 'It's really not much of a competition; Andrew David is getting the job.' I could never say that to a kid, and I wouldn't say to Andrew David, 'Look, you don't even know what the cafeteria at U-M smells like, much less what it takes to play football here. But come on in. It's your job.' "Hungry dogs hunt best. I don't play fa- vorites, and I don't care who plays. My first year at Fresno State, 1997, I played a walk- on over a senior punter. My first year at USC I played a walk-on kicker in front of a scholarship kicker, the second year a walk- on punter in front of a scholarship punter. I couldn't care less who has the job." The same applies to the return game, where most believe redshirt freshman safety Jabrill Peppers will return punts and possibly even kicks. U-M was nowhere near determining who it would be coming out of spring ball, Baxter said. PRESEASON ANALYSIS: SPECIAL TEAMS Starter ✪ ✪ ✪ Grad transfer and punter Blake O'Neill should be an immediate impact starter, but there's no experience at any of the other positions. None of the kickers have attempted a field goal in a game, and redshirt freshman Jabrill Peppers has returned only one punt for six yards. Depth ✪ ✪ 1 ⁄2 There seems to be quality competition at both kicker and punter, and the stable of return men is deep. Peppers will likely see the field in that capacity, but there are several options there. X-Factor Field position is going to be huge while the offense finds its wings, and Peppers can be a game breaker in the return game. Hidden yardage could be the difference between a seven-win season and a nine-win season, and Peppers was outstanding as a return man in high school. Overall ✪ ✪ ✪ There are too many unknowns to grade this unit any higher going into the year. The coaches will have no idea if the freshmen kickers can perform under pressure until they get into games, so it will be trial by fire. O'Neill and Peppers seem to be the closest to a sure thing on special teams. Note: Star rankings are made on a scale of 1-5 stars. Year-By-Year Kicking Leaders PUNTING Punt Average Long Year Player Attempts Punt Punt 2014 Will Hagerup 53 42.9 63 2013 Matt Wile 61 40.6 69 2012 Will Hagerup 33 45.0 62 2011 Matt Wile 17 41.6 58 2010 Will Hagerup 33 43.6 72 2009 Zoltan Mesko 52 44.5 66 2008 Zoltan Mesko 80 43.0 63 2007 Zoltan Mesko 70 41.1 68 2006 Zoltan Mesko 50 41.6 64 2005 Ross Ryan 52 38.3 64 FIELD GOALS Field Goal Field Goal Long Year Player Attempts Made Field Goal 2014 Matt Wile 21 15 48 2013 Brendan Gibbons 20 15 47 2012 Brendan Gibbons 18 16 52 2011 Brendan Gibbons 17 13 43 2010 Seth Broekhuizen 9 3 37 2009 Jason Olesnavage 15 11 51 2008 K.C. Lopata 15 10 50 2007 K.C. Lopata 12 11 42 2006 Garrett Rivas 20 17 48 2005 Garrett Rivas 26 19 47

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