Multiple muffs on kickoff returns. Penalties on the field goal units ranging from too many men on the field to a delay of game. Missed field goals from reasonable distances. Misplayed punts pinning the offense deep.
The No. 2 Michigan football team’s special teams unit has made all of these mistakes so far this year, and special teams coordinator Jay Harbaugh is well aware of the work his group still has to do. If he needed any reminder, he got it on Wednesday when asked about those various miscues.
“Yeah, you just listed them,” Jay quipped in response to a reporter’s question. “… When you have a lot of new players, unfortunately those types of things happen, and you have to get through them and get through them fast. It doesn’t mean you’re happy with them or OK with them, but they are understandable. And then you see as many of those things coming as you can, and (you) try to prevent them.”
Inexperience is all over the field when it comes to Michigan’s special teams, even with the most veteran players on the unit.
Graduate kicker James Turner may have four years of college ball under his belt, but those were all at Louisville — he’s just starting to get acclimated to the Wolverines’ kicking unit. Junior punter Tommy Doman may be in his third year with the program, but he didn’t see much meaningful game action in the first two — he’s just starting to grow into the anchor for the punting unit.
And on kickoff and punt returns, not only does Michigan lack experience — it still lacks a bonafide returner. Last year’s starter, A.J. Henning, transferred to Northwestern, and the Wolverines have yet to stick with a full-time replacement. So far, they’ve rotated through the likes of senior Jake Thaw, freshman Semaj Morgan, sophomore Tyler Morris and others.
As it turns out, the lack of a consistent deep man hasn’t even been Michigan’s biggest headache. Teams like Bowling Green have found success kicking it shorter and testing Michigan’s front men on the return as opposed to sending it deep. The Falcons did it twice in week three, and Rutgers tried it last week. Against Bowling Green, junior tight end Max Bredeson caught that first kickoff, began returning it and fumbled the ball as he was hit. On the next kickoff, senior edge rusher Braiden McGregor muffed the short kick but recovered it himself.
A special teams weakness, yes, but also a compliment to the Wolverines’ deep returners according to Jay.
“We had a couple good looking returns against UNLV, and then when you put that on tape, people aren’t quite as excited to keep kicking it deep to you,” Jay said. “Also people want to test your ball security, and obviously we didn’t pass that test against Bowling Green with the fumble, which is unfortunate.”
Since then, Michigan has started to shore things up on the return as it works toward more consistent personnel. On the other side of the ball, the Wolverines are covering kickoffs well, with their kick return defense ranked third in the nation. A special teams unit in progress doesn’t mean a unit without any nation-leading strengths.
But it’s hard to truly gauge a special teams crew off numbers. With so many factors, like offenses preventing punts or driving to the point where punts won’t be long if they do happen, stats don’t always tell the whole story.
“I don’t know what we ranked, most special teams rankings can be really deceiving,” Jay said. “They’re easily manipulated or that kind of thing. So you want to feel everything you can, and if you can get one yard, that’s great. That’s better than no yards.”
As Jay alluded to, special teams come down to the eye test. So far, looking through that lens is a mixed bag. Sometimes, peering at the unit shows one with a lot of work to do — like a misplayed punt against the Scarlet Knights leaving the ball rolling down to the six yard line to pin Michigan deep. Sometimes, peering at the unit shows one rocking and rolling — like Doman’s problem-free punt from the back of the Wolverines’ endzone against East Carolina.
Seeing both means it’s a unit still figuring things out.