Position review: special teams
With the Michigan football team’s 2018 regular season in the books, The Daily looks back at the performance of each unit this year and peers ahead to the future in 2019. In this edition: special teams.
Michigan’s special teams unit came into the year a largely raw bunch that had seen its ups and downs the year before. But from the time sophomore defensive back Ambry Thomas returned a kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown in the season opener against Notre Dame, it also flashed its unique potential.
The group’s contribution went mostly unseen, but it was quietly one of the Wolverines’ biggest strengths. Whether through clutch kicking, long punts or electric returns, the special teams helped keep Michigan in some games and turned others into blowouts.
Junior punter Will Hart was a revelation. After spending last season backing up then-freshman Brad Robbins, Hart stepped into the spotlight after Robbins missed the entire season with an injury. He punted for an average of 49.98 yards with a long of 65, while totaling 19 punts of at least 50 yards. That earned him the Big Ten Punter of the Year award and a first-team All-Big Ten nod.
While the other positions were more unsettled, many contributors stepped up, especially on the return unit. Sophomore safety Brad Hawkins and freshman wide receiver Ronnie Bell both contributed, and Bell ripped off a 53-yard kick return in the Peach Bowl that showcased his future potential as a return man.
HIGH POINT: Michigan’s offense had stalled — again. Jake Moody came to bail it out — again.
It was late in the fourth quarter and Indiana — a team that had no business sticking with the Wolverines this long — had just scored a touchdown to cut Michigan’s lead to eight. With the game down to one score, the Wolverines needed a safety net, and when they faced fourth down again, Moody got the call.
His 29-yard attempt sailed straight through.
The kick was his sixth field goal on the day. Not only was it a program record, it was Moody’s first game placekicking. Previously, Moody had stuck to kickoff duties, but with Michigan’s normal kicker, redshirt sophomore Quinn Nordin, out with an illness, it was Moody’s turn to step up. The Wolverines won the game, 31-20, largely thanks to Moody’s contributions.
Moody’s breakout game also provided some much-needed stability to the kicking corps. Nordin has a strong leg, but was prone to misses from easy distances. Due to his performance against the Hoosiers, Moody started the remaining two games of the season and hit four of his five attempts, including a 48-yarder against Florida in the Peach Bowl.
LOW POINT: At halftime against Wisconsin, there was frustration.
Michigan had thoroughly outplayed the Badgers to that point, but led by just six. Against a team like Wisconsin, it seemed like the Wolverines’ trouble finishing drives could come back to bite them.
The slim lead was partially thanks to one of Nordin’s bad days. After missing a field goal in the first quarter, he missed another just before halftime, squandered a pair of promising drives.
Nordin’s misses ultimately didn’t come back to bite Michigan as it pulled away in the second half to win, 38-13, but they showed the potential dangers that could come with an inconsistent kicker — part of the reason Moody eventually took over the starting role.
Against the Hoosiers, the kicking unit bailed out its offense when not much was working. Against the Badgers, the offense was there to bail out its kickers at their low point.
THE FUTURE: The Wolverines’ special teams in 2018 were largely populated by fresh faces. Of the main contributors, only Hart was an upperclassman, and he still has one more year of eligibility. That bodes well for the future, as more development from its young players will bolster an already strong unit.
That’s particularly true of the returners. Sophomore receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones at punt return and the committee of Thomas, Hawkins and Bell at kick return certainly flashed potential. Peoples-Jones scored an electric touchdown against Nebraska, employing his signature spin move to take a punt to the house. Facing an 18-point deficit late in the second quarter against Notre Dame, Thomas scored a kick-return touchdown to give Michigan hope of a comeback.
But with it, its inexperience showed as well. Against Ohio State, Thomas caught a kick that was about to sail over his head and out of bounds, significantly hurting the Wolverines' field position in a critical moment. Both he and Peoples-Jones occasionally made mental mistakes that spurred questions over whether their roles would be better filled by someone else.
The extra year of experience will help combat those slip-ups, and Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh’s willingness to try others at punt and kick return will give other speedy young players, like Bell, a chance to emerge. Meanwhile, Peoples-Jones’ spin move and Thomas’ blazing speed give the group large upside despite inconsistency.
Should Nordin and Moody both remain with the team, Nordin’s range could complement Moody’s consistency. Moody’s only missed field goal on the year was from 52 yards — a distance Nordin has shown he can hit. Moody will likely handle regular kicking duties in the future, but Nordin could come in to try long attempts and give the Wolverines a higher ceiling.
Meanwhile, after cementing his status as one of the top punters in the nation, Hart has one year left to build on his success. Big Ten games have a reputation for being defensive battles where field position is key. Against Michigan State — a game in which offense was hard to come by — Hart punted eight times for an average of 45.8 yards, including a 65-yarder. Michigan will likely have more such games in the future, and Hart has shown that he can put his team in a good position to win by making opposing offenses work that much harder.
Overall, the special teams had unsung success for the Wolverines this season, and the unit’s youth and emergence of new stars bode well for another year of helping Michigan win behind the scenes.