There is plenty to be said about the Rutgers football team, but poor kickoff coverage is not one of them.
Jim Harbaugh made sure to note that — unprompted — during his Monday press conference. And if a 39.5-point spread is any indication, we could see plenty of the Scarlet Knights’ special teams on the field this Saturday. Harbaugh may have flattered the Big Ten basement dwellers in a serious tone, but the jestful aura of his words was louder.
Nonetheless, Harbaugh wasn’t wrong. Rutgers is second in the country, allowing just 14.9 return yards per kickoff, and is 34th in yards allowed per punt return. This weekend may just be more scout work for Michigan, but the spotlight is now positioned on what special teams coach Chris Partridge and his unit will do.
It seems easy enough. Both Ambry Thomas and Donovan Peoples-Jones rank in the top-25 nationally in kick and punt return yards, respectively. But Partridge isn’t particularly concerned with that part of things. He is frustrated with other aspects of his special teams group.
“There’s a concern about that whole unit. I mean, we dropped the snap, our left end decided to not block the one last week,” Partridge said, referring to a blocked field goal against Penn State. “That’s a whole unit deal. (Kicker) Quinn (Nordin) starts it, he’s the head of it, but that’s a concern for sure. That’s something that we put in time in a lot and a lot more recently.
“… Gotta get it fixed or get someone that’s not gonna make the mistake in there.”
Nordin has also converted just three of his past seven kicks, and would have to make eight in a row to match his conversion percentage from last season. Blocked field goals can be anomalies, but the leash on Nordin’s starting spot is still getting shorter. Partridge noted that freshman Jake Moody is the backup, should Nordin lose his job.
“It is unfair (to blame Nordin),” Partridge said. “But at the same time, he’s gotta be better and take control of that thing. There’s a bunch of different factors that go into that.”
In terms of kickoff coverage, Partridge and Harbaugh both shared their pleasure in that area.
“This past game, the two stars were Ben Mason and Tyler Cochran,” Harbaugh said. “… There’s others that are playing really well, but those two are really a force. With Ben Mason puncturing and Tyler Cochran cutting the field in half, been very good.”
Harbaugh was specifically referring to two plays from Mason, one of which that even garnered Twitter virality. On one kickoff, Mason shed three Nittany Lions blockers to tackle returner KJ Hamler at Penn State’s own 17-yard line.
On another, following a kickoff that sailed out of bounds off Moody’s leg, Penn State coach James Franklin made the confounding decision to re-do the play instead of taking the ball at its own 35-yard line. Needless to say, it was not successful, as Hamler returned the ball just to the 23.
“I know on their side, it’s like ‘Alright, we have a great kick returner and they just sprinted down the field so maybe they’ll be a little tired. Let’s try to get them to re-kick it,’ ” Partridge said. “And we covered that.”
Variability in the special teams’ performance has primarily been limited to kickoff coverage and field goal kicking. With Thomas and Peoples-Jones highlighting the return teams, the Wolverines have been on an ascending trajectory.
Last Saturday that was especially apparent, with Peoples-Jones breaking off two lengthy punt returns and Thomas nearly taking one into the red zone if not for a block in the back call — one that Partridge didn’t take kindly to.
“I don’t know how much you can fix the kick return last week,” Partridge said. “If kicking someone’s butt is a penalty nowadays, then sure. But (Josh Ross) didn’t grab, he didn’t hold. He pancaked a guy and they called a flag. … That was frustrating because you take away a great moment away from a unit, and from a player a 60-yard return.”
Against a stout Rutgers coverage team, great field position and return touchdowns may be hard to produce. But advantages in every other facet of the game would tell you that Michigan won’t need either.