Thursday, August 30, 2012

2012 Positional Breakdown: Special Teams

Entering the 2011 season, there were some major questions revolving around Michigan's team and specifically, the special teams.  Following last year, many of those questions have been answered and some have even started viewing the special teams as an advantage for the team.  With Michigan's top three kickers/punters returning and both of its specialist returners coming back, there is a lot to be excited about in terms of special teams.  Granted, they don't win the game alone (in most cases), but Michigan fans know as well as anybody from their experiences in 2009 and 2010, that they can be extremely important for a team.

Brendan Gibbons (RS Junior)
The story of the Sugar Bowl and the redemption of Team 132 could almost be an autobiography for Brendan Gibbons.  During Michigan's 2010 campaign, Gibbons appeared in 5 games and started 4 of them.  Not bad for a redshirt freshman.  The problem is that he made just 1 of 5 field goals with his longest being from just 24 yards in the first game of the season.  His play that followed was erratic, unreliable, and scattered throughout the season and in the biggest games of the year.  Few thought he stood a chance in 2011.

However, the year that followed was simply astounding.  Not just because of the massive improvement, but because he did it after undergoing the down 2010 year.  Kickers recovering from those types of performances are mixed.  Kicking takes a lot of mental preparation and taking that big of a mental hit and recovering is quite an accomplishment.  Not only did he play in and start every game for Michigan's Sugar Bowl run, but he also posted career highs in several games including 7 made PAT's against Minnesota and a 43 yard field goal against Ohio State.  Despite this, his most impressive moment was when he made all 3 field goal attempts against Virginia Tech including a 37 yard overtime kick to seal the game.  Gibbons will be back and should be the most reliable kicker Michigan has had in quite awhile.

Matt Wile (Sophomore)
When Wile committed to Brady Hoke late in the 2011 recruiting period, he was viewed as the savior to Michigan's 2010 special team woes.  Of course, with the development of Gibbons, Wile didn't have to carry as big of a load as many originally expected.  Wile did, however, make some big contributions in both the punting and kickoff games.  He kicked off in every game and started as the punter in the first four games, largely due to the suspension of Will Hagerup.

Right now, Wile is expected to start as the kickoff specialist again and is listed as a co-starter for the punter position.  Wile may not have as much raw talent as Hagerup in terms of punting, but he is more reliable both on and off the field.  Hagerup can boom some kicks, but he also has some that don't go very far.  Wile is more consistent and has not had the off-field issues that Hagerup has endured.  If Hagerup gets his act together, expect Wile to play exclusively as the team's kick-off man, but I think Wile is going to end up being the team's punter and kick-off man.

Will Hagerup (Junior)
One of the most frustrating players recently has been Will Hagerup.  Not only because he has been involved in several off-field issues, but also because he has displayed such inconsistency on the field.  Not only has he averaged 51 yards in a game, but he's also punted over 50 yards on three separate occasions, including a 72 yard punt.  That's not something that's easy to do.  Compare that to Michigan's other potential punter, Matt Wile, who's longest punt is 58 yards.  The problem is that Hagerup's average dropped over 7 yards from 2010 to 2011.

As I said, if Hagerup can get back to his 2010 numbers, there is no doubt that he should be Michigan's starting punter, assuming there are no off-field issues.  The problem is getting back to his earlier incredible production.  Personally, I don't think Hagerup is going to be able to hold off Matt Wile unless he can get near those numbers.  Michigan has two pretty solid punters on the roster, but I think Hagerup will be filling the roster space on the bench this year.

Jeremy Gallon (RS Junior)
During the last two years, Gallon has been Michigan's "go to" return man.  He's been in just about every game as a punt and kick returner and has drastically improved.  During 2010, his production wasn't too bad, but on several occasions he completely muffed the punt or kick leading to an easy turnover.  He corrected this problem during 2011 and saw a lot more reliable play.  If Michigan can do a better job protecting him, look for some more improvement in 2012.  Plus, if the defense continues to get better or at least maintains its 2011 level, Gallon is going to be getting a lot of opportunities to touch the ball.

Josh Furman (RS Sophomore)
Furman is a question mark as far as special teams goes for 2012.  This will be his first year getting some serious time in a bigger role, being slated as Michigan's primary kickoff returner.  This is something we can't predict too much, but I anticipate the kickoff protection will improve, which should make the job a lot easier on Furman.  Plus, Furman has some serious speed.  He ran track in high school with personal bests of 10.82 in the 100 m and 22.84 in the 200 m.  Not a direct translation to the football field, but it shows why the coaching staff is looking to use him in this role.

Dennis Norfleet (Freshman)
Until Signing Day 2012, Michigan fans had no clue that the Wolverines would be getting Dennis Norfleet, the 4* running back.  Despite the surprise, Norfleet has brought a good deal of excitement with him and is likely to be featured extensively in the special teams for the remainder of his time at Michigan.  He's already slated for kick returner and is the backup for punt returner.  Gallon should have the punt return role secured, but I think Norfleet could be electric returning kicks with his raw speed and agility.  Yes, he's a freshman, but expect big things here.

Overall, Michigan's special teams seem like they could take a definite step forward.  The team is bringing back the kicking specialists and its best returner from 2011.  Along with that, there should be increased competition for these spots, leading to better production on the field.  Many fans don't take this area of the game very seriously, but getting the team in good field position and allowing the team to come away with 3 points instead of 0 could be very big as the year goes along, especially in close games.  That's why it's such good news to hear of Michigan's special teams depth.

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