Tyree Kinnel didn’t have to wait long for the moment he had anticipated. About 80 seconds into Michigan’s game against Central Florida on Saturday, Kinnel lined up on the punt-block team — Grant Perry to his left, Brandon Watson to his right.
Kinnel knew one of the three was going to get a hand on the ball.
All week, Michigan had observed weaknesses to exploit in UCF’s punt team and saw an opportunity to strike early. Sure enough, with seven Wolverines against five Knights on the line of scrimmage, two UCF players leaked out to cover the punt. “We were bringing quite a few up the middle, and I knew they had overloaded a side,” Kinnel said.
Kinnel was the difference-maker. Perry engaged with one member of the last line of blockers, and Watson took the other two. That freed space up the middle for Kinnel to lunge and tip the kick.
The altered punt traveled just 13 yards, but Michigan’s offense went three-and-out on the ensuing possession. So the defense forced another Knights punt, the Wolverines lined up in the same formation and Kinnel got there again.
This time, the punt went 27 yards, and Michigan took over in UCF territory and scored on each of its next six possessions. Whatever may have happened without that edge in field position, it was clear Kinnel’s fingertips changed the game.
The sophomore safety from Wayne, Ohio, has been close before. Last year, Kinnel nearly blocked a punt against Ohio State in the regular-season finale, only to draw a flag for roughing the kicker and extend the drive. The Buckeyes scored the first points of the game four plays later and went on to win 42-13.
“(This time,) Coach just told me, ‘Don’t go after it, just go get it,’ ” Kinnel said. “And if you’re taught the right way, you’ll go get it.”
By now, Kinnel is familiar with fine lines. He knows the difference between blocking punts and coming close, between seeing the field and standing on the sidelines, even between winning programs and losing programs.
Kinnel’s senior year of high school was the infamous 2014 season, in which Michigan finished 5-7 and ousted coach Brady Hoke, to whom Kinnel committed. Unlike several other recruits, Kinnel honored his commitment and started attending Michigan last fall.
Since then, he has fought to see the field. He was a standout on offense and defense in high school, but never played special teams. Only when he arrived in Ann Arbor did he see the unit as his path onto the field.
“It’s just attitude and effort when it comes to special teams,” Kinnel said. “It’s about knowing who wants it more, knowing it’s a key factor in the game.”
He learned that lesson from former special teams coordinator John Baxter, who spent one season at Michigan last year before returning to Southern California. Many regard Baxter as one of the top special teams coaches in the country, citing his track record of blocked kicks. But the Wolverines didn’t connect on any last season before tipping two punts and two field-goal attempts Saturday.
“The schemes aren’t really much different,” Kinnel said. “I think we’re just giving more effort.”
Just more than a year after trying special teams for the first time, Kinnel now sees that job as his role on the team, certainly a vital one Saturday.
As for defense, Kinnel has made progress there, too, seeing time as a reserve safety behind seniors Delano Hill and Dymonte Thomas. To a coaching staff that values every effort, his success in the punting game has to be of value.
“I don’t think it goes ignored,” Kinnel said. “(I) ended up getting special teams player of the week, so they like it. It’s a coaches’ thing, how that goes.”
For the time being, Kinnel still wants more on special teams. He thinks he may soon be able to fully block a kick, getting a hand on it instead of just a fingertip. The punt block is one of the fastest plays in sports, where milliseconds separate an altered kick and a perfectly executed one.
But in many aspects, Kinnel has learned to trust his preparation. He knew the punt block unit could break through Saturday, and it did. And in 2014, he knew Michigan’s fortunes would change, and they did.
“In high school, when they were struggling, I think I always wanted to be here,” Kinnel said. “I think things were going to change regardless.”