The Michigan football team’s special teams unit was anything but special last season. The punt return and kick return teams were average at best, and the kicking team was downright brutal.

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Once Michigan crossed the midfield stripe, at times I hoped then-redshirt freshman kicker Seth Broekhuizen would just run on the field, close his eyes, and swing his leg as hard as he could. Or that then-redshirt freshman Brendan Gibbons would carry his golf bag onto the field, pull out a pitching wedge and give the ball a whack.

Well, golf clubs, of course, would be illegal. But at least it’d give the Wolverines a valid excuse for finishing dead last in the nation with four field goals made all season.

If that statistic alone isn’t enough to make you want to bang your head against a wall, consider this: Broekhuizen’s season total of three made field goals (Gibbons was 1-for-5) equals the game total of field goals made by then-Ohio State kicker Devin Barclay in the Buckeyes’ 37-7 win over the Wolverines last November.

At this rate, the two Michigan kickers will need about five years to equal Barclay’s one-year total of 19 kicks made.

But there is good news regarding the kicking game — the Wolverines can go nowhere but up. And they will.

When new Michigan coach Brady Hoke left San Diego State for Michigan, Matt Wile, an All-American kicker who had committed to San Diego State, followed him. listed Wile as the No. 4 kicker in the nation, and he finished his senior year at Francis Parker High School 10-for-13 with a career-long boot of 49 yards.

Wile won’t necessarily be the kicking team’s savior — there’s no saying that he’ll even be the starter, as Hoke has given no indication who will send the ball flying come Sept. 3 — but Wile gives Wolverine fans hope, something they haven’t had in the kicking game in over a year.

And with new special teams coach Dan Ferrigno with the reins this year, there’s no telling what Broekhuizen and Gibbons might be able to do if they can forget about last year’s nightmare.

Keep in mind that Gibbons, like Wile, was an All-American in high school. His list of high-school accolades is longer than the Mississippi River — his problem isn’t in his leg, it’s in his head. If Ferrigno can help get Gibbons’ head on straight, Gibbons could very well play a factor in the kicking game this year.

Ferrigno will face a much simpler task with sophomore punter Will Hagerup.

As a freshman, Hagerup averaged 43.6 yards per punt and showcased one of the strongest legs in the Big Ten. Hagerup will undoubtedly be called upon again to lead the punting squad.

However, Hoke announced Sunday evening that Hagerup would be suspended for the first four games of the season for a “violation of team rules.” It appears that either Wile, who was also a stand-out punter in high school, or Broekhuizen, who averaged just 28.7 yards on three punts last year, will take over the starting duties during Hagerup’s suspension.

Snapping the ball to Hagerup upon his return will be fifth-year senior Tom Pomarico. The Jackson, Mich. native started all 13 games last year and, barring any injury, should resume the starting duty this season.

On the returning end of the football, Michigan has potential, but much of that went out the window with Hoke’s announcement Sunday evening that wide receiver Darryl Stonum would redshirt the 2011 season. Stonum was issued the second drunk-driving charge of his collegiate career this summer.

In 2009, Stonum set a team record with 1,001 return yards, and he is the last Wolverine to return a kickoff for a touchdown.

But even without Stonum, the Wolverines have a plethora of options at kick returner and punt returner. Redshirt sophomore Jeremy Gallon, senior Martavious Odoms, senior Junior Hemingway and sophomore Drew Dileo all saw action last year, and each has a chance to make an impact this season.

There has also been speculation that quarterback Denard Robinson could see action as a kick returner, but at Big Ten Media Days, Robinson made his job description clear when asked if he’d play any other positions.

“I will play quarterback,” he said with his signature smile.

But if all goes as planned, the Wolverines won’t need Robinson to return kicks at all.

Gallon was first on the team last year in total kick returns with 27. However, his average of 21.8 yards per kick was just third on the squad — Stonum averaged 23.3 per return and Odoms 22.6.

Gallon and Odoms each showed potential to be solid returners, but Michigan fans collectively held their breath whenever either of them walked onto the field — both struggled mightily with holding onto the ball and seemed to have a knack for muffing kick returns.

Both will have to prove they can hold onto the ball if they want to see action this season.

Hemingway returned just one punt last year, but he made it count, bursting through the Mississippi State defense at the Gator Bowl for a 33-yard return. With his ability to blow past defenders and a strong frame that makes him difficult to tackle, the Conway, S.C. native has the potential to blast into the starting punt returner role.

But don’t lose sight of Dileo — he’s not the fastest guy on the field, but he makes up for it with his keen ability to see the field and his ability to make people miss. And maybe most importantly, he holds onto the ball. With a good showing in camp, Dileo could snag the job as kick returner or punt returner.

The tools are there for the Wolverines’ special teams unit, and their job is simple — make special teams special again.

Preseason grade: B-
Projected starters: Matt Wile (PK), Will Hagerup (P), Tom Pomarico (LS), Drew Dileo (KR), Junior Hemingway (PR)
Key losses: Darryl Stonum
Surprise player: Drew Dileo

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