Grading Michigan’s special teams unit
New punters. New kickers. New returners. New everything.
Special teams coordinator Chris Partridge has had a lot on his plate this year, which has been a big change from last season when just two players handled all of the responsibilities.
Former Wolverine Kenny Allen used to command all three kicking duties (kickoffs, punts and field goals), and former linebacker and Heisman finalist Jabrill Peppers used to line up for every punt and kick return.
But Allen and Peppers have left Ann Arbor, and new players had to step in. Partridge had to modify and rework the starters in the first few games, but it seems like the depth chart is now finalized.
With midterm season in full swing at the University, here are our grades for Michigan football’s different special teams groups.
Redshirt junior kicker James Foug owns this spot. Now in his fourth year on the team, Foug has solidified his role as Michigan’s starting kicker. He’s got a strong leg — about two-thirds of his kickoffs go for touchbacks — and Partridge has taken notice.
“He’s developed tremendously,” Partridge said. “He’s a guy who last year was just behind Kenny (Allen). It was close, but we had the experience of Kenny so we went with him.
“But James had a great year this year, and he’s doing a great job of putting the ball up there high and giving our kickoff team a nice advantage there.”
Partridge noted that Foug worked all summer to give his kicks a longer hang time.
It’s paying off.
The punter position hasn’t been as steady for Michigan.
Redshirt freshman Will Hart punted in the first three games against Florida, Cincinnati and Air Force, averaging 37.9 yards per punt. To put that in perspective, Allen averaged 43.3 yards per punt last year.
Hart was subbed out for freshman Brad Robbins at the start of the Big Ten season, and so Robbins seems to have the upper hand so far.
Robbins’ punts average 42.6 yards — just shorter than Allen’s. He also displayed his good catching ability in the rainy game against Michigan State, a rivalry game that has a recent history of punters making crucial mistakes.
Partridge said that the “sky is the limit” for Robbins and that the true freshman has done everything they’ve asked of him so far.
While both Hart and Robbins have seen a few whiffed punts skim off the side of their foot, there have been no major miscues.
The field goal unit has been spot on.
Redshirt freshman kicker Quinn Nordin has converted 86 percent of his field goals, and his only two misses came in the season opener against Florida.
The group consists of Nordin, fifth-year senior holder Garrett Moores and redshirt freshman long snapper Cameron Cheeseman. The trio played a big part in getting the Wolverines through games early in the season and may be called upon again.
Freshman receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones is gutsy, and it almost cost him the starting punt returner job.
Since a few questionable fair-catch decisions against Cincinnati, Peoples-Jones has been solid. He returned a punt for a touchdown against Air Force, and the coaches continue to express their faith in his ability.
“You haven’t seen the last of (Peoples-Jones) in the end zone,” Partridge said. “He’s getting really comfortable back there. I think we’ll have some big plays out of him coming forward.”
As a returner, Peoples-Jones is fearless. Partridge said that he has a great ability to track the ball, catch it and then make one or two defenders miss.
“And he’s big, so he can run through those tackles,” Partridge said. “He’s fast, so he can break open when he makes them miss.”
Sophomore receiver Kekoa Crawford started the season as Michigan’s lead kick returner, but freshman defensive back Ambry Thomas took over for Crawford against Michigan State last weekend.
Thomas returned one kick for 30 yards against the Spartans, almost breaking loose for a bigger gain.
“Ambry’s ready,” Partridge said. “He’s ready to go back there now. He’s explosive, he’s fast, he’s fearless. Really excited about him.”
The kickoff return blocking is one area Partridge thinks needs to improve. Even if only one player misses his block, opponents can make the tackle. That’s the difference between a 30-yard kick return and a touchdown.
If the blocking improves, Partridge expects Thomas — or whoever returns the kicks — to break one through for a touchdown soon.