It was an absolute clinic on how to run a kickoff return.
Northwestern kicker Matt Micucci avoided highly touted return man and redshirt freshman safety Jabrill Peppers. Instead, he kicked to the east side of the field as his gunners to seal off the secondary return man and redshirt junior wide receiver Jehu Chesson.
Instead, Chesson — whom Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh would later say is the 12th-ranked Wolverines’ fastest player — broke past the seal and went all 96 yards untouched to give Michigan its first opening-kickoff touchdown return since 1992.
It shocked the Wildcats, the fans in the stadium and just about everyone watching on TV at home, but one man on the sideline saw it coming the entire time.
Michigan special teams coordinator John Baxter is known as something of a guru in the world of special teams, and just six games into his tenure at Michigan, the Wolverines are already reaping the benefits of his presence.
“He thinks on another level,” Chesson said of Baxter. “One of his things is that every team presents a puzzle to solve, and he’s going to work harder than the next guy and work harder than any other coach, and I think he does that.
“I’m very confident to say that we have one of the best special teams coordinators there is.”
So far, Baxter has been able to solve that puzzle every week. According to FootballOutsiders.com, the Wolverines were 82nd in the nation in field position advantage in 2014, a statistic that measures the net gain or loss from field position. This year, FootballOutsiders has yet to release data, but FBSDriveStats.Com has Michigan ninth in the category.
According to ESPN, the Wolverines are fourth nationally in special teams efficiency after finishing 2014 96th in the category.
Due to Michigan’s stifling defense an an opponents’ tendency to settle for a touchback, it has only had five kickoff returns — two fewer than any other team in the country — but leads the nation with a 39.0 return average.
“When you’re back there and you’re trained so well like we are, things go in slow motion,” Chesson said. “You just kind of see gaps and holes open up. On that play, the blocks made their blocks, and the ball carrier made a good decision with the ball.”
Yes, Chesson referred to himself as a ball carrier. Under Baxter, plays are taught to see the plays as puzzles to solve, and their roles as simple cogs in the machine, not personal efforts.
“That’s the key (to special teams),” Chesson said. “You have to be selfless. You have to do things other guys may not want to do, and the players who do that are the ones who are going to play.”
Among those players is Peppers. Rated as one of the most explosive players in the country before he even took a snap for Michigan, Peppers was more than happy to let Chesson get the touchdown, sprinting ahead to block the only Northwestern player that came within 10 yards of Chesson.
“Big mistake (kicking to Chesson),” Peppers said with a grin. “I saw the way they lined the tee up and told Jehu, ‘The ball’s coming to you. I got your block.’
“The whole special teams unit wants to see those touchdowns and knows they have to do their jobs to make it happen.”
Baxter solved Northwestern’s puzzle, and has moved on to Michigan State. The Spartans have shown discipline on special teams in their latest rise to national prominence, but under Baxter, so will the Wolverines.
“I don’t really know what other teams do in terms of special teams, but I think there are things that (Baxter) does that are unique on a play-by-play basis,” Chesson said. “He really takes his time and coaches each individual position.”