Editor’s Note: With the Michigan football team’s 2015 regular season in the books, the Daily looks back at the performance of each unit this year and looks ahead to the future in 2016. In this edition: special teams.
You can credit now-departed special teams coordinator John Baxter, you can credit Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh, you can credit graduate transfers and rising upperclassmen — there’s plenty of deserved credit to go around. There are few units in the country that improved from 2014 to 2015 as much as the No. 12 Michigan football team’s special teams unit.
In the Wolverines’ 2014 campaign that resulted in a disappointing 5-7 record, special teams were a sore spot. Kicking, returning, punting, holding onto the football and even putting 11 players on the field proved difficult for Michigan. In ESPN’s special teams efficiency, the Wolverines were 96th out of 128 teams.
This year, Michigan finished the season tied for 12th in the same category, and, despite a sluggish finish, the special teams unit had plenty more to hang its hat on.
Thanks to a group of kick and punt returners led by redshirt freshman Jabrill Peppers, the return game received a much-needed boost, finishing the season third in kickoff return average and fourth in average field position.
Redshirt junior kicker Kenny Allen converted 15 of 16 field goals from inside 40 yards (18-for-22 overall) and made all 48 of his extra point attempts.
Fifth-year senior graduate transfer Blake O’Neill blasted nine punts over 50 yards and pinned 23 inside the 20-yard line. He also had the longest punt of the season in college football at 80 yards.
As a whole, the special teams unit looked vastly improved in 2015, and with one notable exception, it paid off.
HIGH POINT: Michigan’s special teams had its best games against Northwestern, Minnesota and Maryland, but the Wolverines’ 38-0 win over the 13th-ranked Wildcats on Oct. 10 was the best of the bunch.
Redshirt junior wide receiver Jehu Chesson took his third career kickoff return 96 yards to the house for Michigan’s first kickoff return touchdown since 2009 and first to open the game since 1992. Thanks to a strong defensive effort, it was the only Northwestern kickoff of the afternoon, and Chesson made the most of it.
From there, Allen hit a career-long 47-yard field goal, while O’Neill pinned three punts inside the 20, including a 59-yarder, in the blowout win.
LOW POINT: Though O’Neill boomed an 80-yard punt, the return game amassed 156 yards and Kenny Allen hit three field goals, Michigan’s special teams will forever take the blame for the team’s loss to Michigan State on Oct. 17.
When O’Neill fumbled the snap on a punt with 10 seconds to go and Michigan State’s Jalen Watts-Jackson returned the fumble for a game-winning touchdown as time expired, all of Michigan’s special teams success was forgotten, as was its chance at a Big Ten title.
THE FUTURE: Despite some uncertainty with special teams moving forward, the unit appears to be in good shape overall. Though Baxter has left to take on the same position at Southern California and O’Neill is graduating, everyone else should be back.
In good news, Allen showed potential to replace O’Neill in the Citrus Bowl with a 57-yard punt, and the nation’s No. 1 high school kicker, Quinn Nordin, took an official visit to Michigan this weekend.
Like the rest of the team, Michigan’s special teams return and bring in more talent than it loses, and next year, it has a chance to be, well, special.