Dennis Norfleet, Michigan’s ‘spicy’ prankster, says catch him if you can

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By Zach Helfand, Daily Sports Editor
Published September 11, 2013

One hot afternoon in the last week of fall camp, Dennis Norfleet strolled into Al Glick Field House. A mop of dreadlocks splashed outward underneath the brim of his oversized bucket hat, bought from the MDen.

He arrived alone, and for now, no one chased him. That would come soon enough. Norfleet, Michigan’s speedy sophomore slot receiver, scapecializes in making people miss, and that’s fortunate for him: people always seem to be running after him, on and off the field.

He is Michigan’s kick and punt returner, after all. But even teammates have found reasons to give him chase. Thomas Gordon called him a “spicy, little guy.” Taylor Lewan would like to teach Norfleet a lesson, if only he could be corralled.

Teammates describe Norfleet as the team’s jester, provoking bigger players in the locker room (and they’re all bigger; Norfleet is the shortest player on the roster and misses being the lightest by just two pounds) and providing a needed diversion when the weekly routine becomes too boring.

The week Norfleet showed up with his oversized hat, the grind of camp and two-a-day practices had some feeling sluggish, said Gordon, a fifth-year senior safety. Norfleet made sure they were awake.

“My role is basically keeping everybody up,” Norfleet said. “I’m a guy that always has energy, a guy that don’t sleep.”

Norfleet’s tactics vary. He can trash-talk about anything, said sophomore defensive end Mario Ojemudia. And he will goad players and coaches alike.

Lewan, though, has become Norfleet’s favorite target. Norfleet and other younger players occasionally challenge the locker-room hierarchy by trying to dash all the way through the “senior pit,” as redshirt freshman guard Kyle Kalis calls it. Most don’t make it through.

Norfleet takes it a step further. When Lewan isn’t looking, Norfleet will sneak up and jump on his back or hit him on the side. Then he’ll run away.

Lewan is a 6-foot-8, 315-pound All-American left tackle. Norfleet weighs 169 pounds. He is just 5-foot-7.

“He’s so small and Taylor’s so big, so people start laughing at that,” said fifth-year senior linebacker Cam Gordon. “Taylor hardly catches him, he can’t catch him.”

On the field, Norfleet disrupts defenses with similar delight. He was recruited to Michigan as a running back. The recruiting website 24/7 Sports reported his 40-yard dash at 4.34 seconds. He returned kicks as a freshman but was stuck behind a stable of backs, so he transitioned to defensive back at the end of 2012. His athleticism was too much to keep off the field.

Now in 2013, he’s back on offense, this time as a slot receiver who can also take a handoff. He has just four career rushes for a total of 52 yards and three receptions for 17. Still, he commands the defense’s attention. Michigan likes to use jet motion to get the ball to Norfleet on a sweep. The defense has to honor it.

“When you see Dennis in motion, he’s heading to get the ball so you gotta pay attention to him,” Ojemudia said.

If not, he’ll find the open field, and there, his size is an advantage. Ojemudia said Norfleet is the only player who can avoid a tackle by ducking underneath it. Meeting Norfleet in the open field, Gordon said, “that’s like a nightmare.”

“He’s like a freak of nature,” Ojemudia said.

Norfleet’s 2012 season ranked second all-time on the Michigan returning yard list at 827 yards. He assumed punt return responsibilities this year, too, and though he’s struggled at times to catch the ball cleanly, Michigan coach Brady Hoke called him a playmaker.

The trick for Michigan is to get him in the open field. Norfleet always seems to be running from someone, and no one has caught him yet.