As the final days count down until game week — starting Aug. 29 before the Michigan football team opens the 2016 season against Hawaii on Sept. 3 at Michigan Stadium — the Daily breaks down each position group heading into the upcoming season. Coming off an impressive 2015 campaign, the special teams unit looks to improve even further.
After a 2014 season in which Michigan’s special teams floundered, finishing 96th in ESPN’s special team’s efficiency rankings, the unit put it all together in 2015. In the same rankings, only a year later, the Wolverines tied for 12th in the country.
Now, in 2016, all but punter Blake O’Neill will return to the field for Michigan. Like most of the Wolverines’ other position groups, the unit returns veteran players with years of experience, and it also adds Quinn Nordin, the nation’s top high school kicker.
Here’s how the group stacks up this year:
Who’s back: Fifth-year senior kicker/punter Kenny Allen; long snappers Scott Sypniewski and Andrew Robinson; and fifth-year senior wide receiver Jehu Chesson, senior cornerback Jourdan Lewis and redshirt sophomore linebacker Jabrill Peppers in the return game.
Who’s not: Punter Blake O’Neill, who punted 53 times for an average of 41.3 yards per punt. Against Michigan State, he booted an 80-yarder that was good enough for longest punt in college football in 2015, but he was also credited with a mishap at the end of the game. Yeah, that mishap.
Special teams coach John Baxter also left for the same position at Southern California, which could be a big loss considering Baxter’s positive influence last season. Linebackers coach Chris Partridge is the new special teams coach, assisted by Jay Harbaugh.
Who’s new: Freshman kicker Quinn Nordin (6-foot-1, 205 pounds), who was the nation’s No. 1 high school kicker in 2015 according to Scout.com.
Stats in 2015: Allen: 18-for-22 field goal attempts, 46-for-46 extra point attempts.
Chesson: Four kick returns for 166 yards (41.5 average), one touchdown.
Lewis: 15 kick returns for 378 yards (25.2 average).
Peppers: 17 punt returns for 194 yards (11.4 average); eight kick returns for 223 yards (27.9 average).
Contenders: Allen will certainly have some competition with Nordin, but Allen’s efficiency last season should be good enough to earn him a starting job. After hitting 18 of his 22 field goal attempts and converting 15 of 16 from inside 40 yards last season, he should enter 2016 with confidence.
All of the usual returners will be back for Michigan, unless the Wolverines decide to use Peppers and Lewis in situations that would limit their availability on special teams. Harbaugh has said that they’re looking into using both players on offense and defense, in which case Michigan may have to look into trying other players.
Chesson will undoubtedly return to the unit after stealing the show last season. Against then-No. 13 Northwestern on Oct. 10, Chesson opened the game by returning the kickoff 96 yards to the house. He was the only Michigan player with a special teams touchdown in 2015.
Edge/Prediction: Not much has been said about special teams this preseason, and that’s likely because the unit is very similar to what it was last year. The only difference is that Allen might be adding punting to his kicking duties, something he showed he was capable of during the Citrus Bowl when he recorded a 57-yard punt.
The same players will be returning the ball, unless Peppers’ or Lewis’ duties lie elsewhere.