While the Michigan special teams unit has been one of the team’s strengths this season, it has weathered some drama lately.
There was, of course, the dropped punt snap that Michigan State picked up and returned for a touchdown and a 27-23 win at Michigan Stadium — “the fluke of all flukes,” as special teams coordinator John Baxter described it Wednesday. But besides that, there have been numerous disruptions to the unit throughout the year.
Baxter’s job is to respond to them, and though he has had an answer to almost every one, they pose challenges nonetheless.
“This is my 30th college football season, and when you think you’ve seen it all, don’t worry, something else is coming,” Baxter said. “It’s a game with really neat young people and a ball that’s not round, and that’s what creates the drama.”
The special teams’ improvement under Baxter has been exceptional. The unit has made several big plays to change the dynamic of games, and the coaching staff has rewarded them. Tuesday night, redshirt junior cornerback Jeremy Clark walked into a media session wearing a special teams shirt with the phrases “Be The Hammer” and “Leverage. Acceleration. Intimidation.”
“Whenever a player does a great job on special teams, we find one of these in our locker,” said Clark, who is on the kick return and punt return teams.
The Wolverines were ranked No. 1 in the country in special teams efficiency during the middle of the season, but they have dropped to 16th after 10 weeks. While the unit has tied up most loose ends, the fall in the rankings comes as a result of three big plays, each surrendered in the past four games.
On Nov. 7, Michigan allowed a 98-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by Rutgers’ Janarion Grant. Senior kicker Kenny Allen has booted almost half (29 of 61) of his kicks for touchbacks, but a low line drive in that instance created the opportunity for an explosive play.
Two other factors also contributed, though: the natural skill of Grant, who already has four return touchdowns this season, and the wind that kept Allen’s kick low. Baxter has to adjust to both — Grant is among the Big Ten’s best return men, and the Midwestern weather often makes wind an influence, too.
The following week, the Wolverines traveled to Indiana and suffered another setback when the Hoosiers’ Mitchell Paige returned a punt 51 yards for a touchdown on the first possession of the second half. Baxter attributed that mistake to fatigue — Michigan appeared to have Paige wrapped up but let him escape.
“In the game, you’ve got to tackle, and when you get the opportunity to tackle, you’ve got to tackle,” Baxter said. “It’s really difficult to ever embrace an attitude of tired, beat up or whatever else, because in November, in this game, everybody is.”
In addition to week-to-week preparations, Baxter’s personnel has been adjusted, as with any unit. Before the Rutgers game, redshirt freshman safety Jabrill Peppers moved away from the kick-return unit to focus more on offense, and junior cornerback Jourdan Lewis replaced him.
Last week, redshirt sophomore long snapper Scott Sypniewski traveled separately from the team to avoid spreading an illness. He made one bad snap that cost Michigan a field goal but played the entire game as usual.
“It’s a general policy not to talk about players’ (health), but I can say this: That kid gutted it out for this football team as much as I’ve ever seen a guy do it,” Baxter said. “He had a 103-(degree) temperature, couldn’t keep anything down all the way through pregame and literally kept reducing that game down to five-minute segments.”
Those kinds of surprises invariably crop up throughout the season, but on special teams, even small ones can create breakdowns.
“We’ve had three negative plays go against us, which is unfortunate because it only takes one negative play to really put a damper on a really nice body of work,” Baxter said. “But that’s the nature of sports, I guess.”