Position Previews 2017: Special teams
As the final days count down until the Michigan football team opens the 2017 season against Florida in the AdvoCare Classic on Sept. 2 at AT&T Stadium in Dallas, the Daily breaks down each position group for the Wolverines this year. In this edition: special teams.
If you thought that the loss of Jabrill Peppers and Jourdan Lewis would solely impact the 11th-ranked Wolverines’ defense, you’d be wrong. Peppers injected lightning into Michigan’s punt and kick return teams, and when he wasn’t flirting with a special teams touchdown, Lewis mopped up the majority of the remaining return responsibilities.
On top of that, Kenny Allen — who doubled as a punter and kicker for the Wolverines in 2016 — has moved on to the Baltimore Ravens. There is talent waiting to replace Allen, but the heirs to Peppers and Lewis’ duties are far less certain.
Here’s how the group stacks up this year:
Who’s back: Across the board, there are limited sample sizes to judge Michigan’s kickers. Sophomore Quinn Nordin, junior Ryan Tice and senior Kyle Seychel are all returning to Michigan’s special teams unit. Nordin and Tice were given a chance to compete for the starting job in 2016, when Allen missed two of three field-goal attempts against Colorado and another two against Wisconsin, but ultimately couldn’t seize the opportunity.
In Nordin, Michigan has a man that was regarded as the top kicker in the 2016 recruiting class. The sophomore managed to nail a 48-yarder in Michigan’s Spring Game, hit both of his point-after attempts and averaged 50 yards on his two kickoffs.
Tice — a former walk-on — was given one field-goal opportunity from 40 yards out against the Badgers last year, but couldn’t manage to convert it. He did, however, convert on 10 point-after attempts through five games.
And finally, Seychel averaged 65 yards on three kickoffs in the Spring Game before hitting a 31-yarder as time expired to give the Maize team a 31-29 victory.
At punter, sophomore Will Hart will be vying for a starting job.
Who’s not: Peppers, Lewis and Allen.
Peppers accounted for 21 of the Wolverines’ 25 punt returns and 10 of their 26 kick returns, averaging 14.8 and 26 yards in each phase, respectively. He notched his sole punt-return touchdown against Colorado and recorded another against Rutgers that was eventually called back. And his 310 total punt return yards were third in the nation. Quite simply, Michigan will miss Peppers’ ability to break a play open.
Lewis, in his own right, was effective in spelling Peppers — averaging 18.1 yards on seven kick returns.
There should be enough talent to replace Allen, but that doesn’t diminish his value in 2016. Allen was 19-for-23 on field-goal attempts, handled all of Michigan’s punting responsibilities to the tune of 24 punts downed inside the 20 and averaged 64.2 yards on 84 kickoffs.
Who’s new: Freshman Brad Robbins will challenge Hart for the starting assignment at punter. Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh described the competition as “neck and neck” on Aug. 13, saying that he has never had a freshman punt as well as Robbins has before adding that Hart is “not giving an inch either”.
Outlook: The Wolverines won’t be placing the responsibility of kicking and punting duties on a single individual again. Harbaugh emphasized in August that Michigan will have a different punting, kickoff and field goal specialist throughout 2017. Nordin will likely claim the field goal responsibilities with Tice handling kickoffs. And the competition between Robbins and Hart will decide the Wolverines’ punter. As for the new punt and kickoff returners, special teams coach Chris Partridge has said that roughly a dozen players are in the mix for the job. And while playing special teams comes with an inherent injury risk, Partridge has also stressed that he won’t compromise the quality of the unit by benching star players because of concerns about potential injuries.
Edge/Prediction: It’s difficult to say who will come out on top in this particular phase when Michigan and Florida meet in Dallas, but there is no denying the talent the Gators have at kicker. Sophomore Eddy Pineiro converted 21 of 25 field goal attempts in 2016, and made rounds on Twitter this summer after hitting an 81-yarder in practice. Granted, he did so without pads, but Florida coach Jim McElwain has said he trusts Pineiro to convert from 56 to 58 yards. Nordin has a leg in his own right, and the Wolverines should be fine on special teams. But for the sake of this matchup, it’s hard to bet against a man who could conceivably put three points on the board if his team gets stuffed near the 50-yard line.