Wearing a hat that read, “Be the hammer,” Michigan special teams coordinator John Baxter emphasized Saturday that many of the position battles in his unit will continue until the Wolverines take the field against Utah on Thursday night.
Baxter said he has a “gut feeling” about who will be the team’s kicker Thursday, but opted to keep that feeling private. The three kickers competing for the job have been taking equal turns throughout camp. Senior Kenny Allen, freshman Andrew David and sophomore Kyle Seychel are competing for the spot vacated by Matt Wile, who graduated following the 2014 season.
“Coach (Jim Harbaugh) really believes in competitive excellence at every position, and those guys are duking it out,” Baxter said.
The nature of the kicking position has made the decision more difficult for the coaching staff. None of the kickers has attempted a kick in a live college game, and playing the season opener on the road could prove daunting. The inexperience at the position could result in a feeling-out process as the season progresses.
Similarly, Baxter said the Wolverines will employ multiple punters in fifth-year senior Blake O’Neill and senior Kenny Allen. O’Neill, a graduate transfer from Weber State, ranked sixth in the Football Championship Subdivision in punting last season, while Allen has attempted one punt in his Michigan career. Baxter was emphatic that both punters will play.
“They will both punt, OK?” Baxter said. “They will both punt for Michigan this year.”
Baxter noted the difference in styles between the punters. O’Neill, an Australian, is an Australian-style punter, which impacts the angle and motion in which he kicks the ball. Allen, Baxter said, drops the ball and kicks it in a spiral, as is the typical American practice.
Michigan will also use multiple returners for punts and kicks. Junior safety Dymonte Thomas, senior wide receiver Jehu Chesson, sophomore defensive back Jabrill Peppers and junior cornerback Jourdan Lewis have each been returning punts and kicks in practice, and all four will be available to field both kicks and punts. Baxter expects all of them to participate in the return game this season.
For now, Baxter is focused on Thursday’s season opener, which holds a little bit of extra meaning. His father-in-law Ron McBride was the head coach at Utah for 13 years, and he considers Utes coach Kyle Whittingham a friend. Combined with the game’s significance as the beginning of the Jim Harbaugh era, Baxter suspects it could be a night to remember.
“It couldn’t be any bigger,” Baxter said.