Last season, the Michigan football team featured a merry-go-round of kick and punt returners. Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez desperately shifted new players on and off the unit as one Wolverine after another bobbled and fumbled returns.
There were different excuses for the special teams sloppiness after each game — the weather was poor, focus was lacking or there was simply an issue of miscommunication.
But Rodriguez is trying to make sure the Wolverines aren’t as easily distracted this year.
Junior Donovan Warren, senior Greg Mathews and redshirt freshman Terrence Robinson took turns fielding punts during the first half hour of practice Saturday, and each successfully fielded his first few punts before Rodriguez walked over to their area, holding a blue blocking shield.
As Mathews prepared to catch the ball, Rodriguez threw the blocking shield at the senior, forcing him to dodge the shield after successfully fielding the punt. The coach laughed, yelled at Mathews, retrieved the shield and did it again.
Saturday’s spring practice, the second with pads, meant the Wolverines were more physical in their drills. Outside on the team’s brand-new practice turf, the crack of the players’ shoulder pads echoed across the field as they crashed into each other while practicing field-goal blocking. Partway through practice, during a one-on-one blocking drill, the yells of the players nearly drowned out the rap music blaring through the temporary sound system.
With increased contact came increased enthusiasm — and the intensity is likely to only increase next Saturday, when Rodriguez said the Wolverines plan to have their first full-scale scrimmage. Until then, it’s all about learning the basics.
“We’re installing some new defensive stuff, and a lot of freshmen are playing for the first time,” Rodriguez said. “They’re still swimming and that’s slowing down our installation a bit, but that’s okay because our primary focus is getting better fundamentally.”
All four practices this spring have been outdoors. Unlike in recent seasons, the weather has treated Michigan well — and the Wolverines hope it will stay warm and sunny for their final practice and spring scrimmage in three weeks.
It’s Rodriguez’s second spring with the Wolverines, but for all intents and purposes, this April 11 will mark his first spring game.
Last spring’s 100-play scrimmage was closed to the public and held at Saline High School due to Big House construction. About 2,500 boosters, family members and friends were in attendance, but many left early due to the rainy, cold weather. Rodriguez and the Athletic Department said in a press release Thursday that they are aiming for about 40,000 fans to attend this year’s spring game at Michigan Stadium. And in an effort to encourage attendance, the Wolverines are planning additional pre-spring game events.
Early on the morning of April 11, the Michigan locker room will be open for tours and photos. Two hours before the spring game, the Wolverines will host an hour-long alumni flag football game. Though the rosters have yet to be determined, the Athletic Department announced that Gary Moeller (head coach from 1990 to 1994) will coach the Maize team and Jerry Hanlon (longtime assistant coach under Bo Schembechler) will coach the Blue team.
Michigan’s spring game technically takes place during the Wolverines’ last practice and is not considered a formal spring scrimmage. In 2007, public attendance at the final practice was estimated at 5,500, according to Big Red Network. In comparison, Michigan State’s 2007 spring game attendance was estimated at 25,000 and Ohio State’s was estimated at 75,310. Both teams hold formal spring games.
Rodriguez said on Mar. 10 that sometime in the next two years, he wants the Wolverines to “set the world record in attendance at a spring game.” But even with adding extra attractions on game day, Michigan has a long way to go. Alabama currently holds the spring game attendance record of 92,138 people.
“It’s not as important from a coaching standpoint what we do, but it is important from an atmosphere standpoint, particularly for some of these young guys to play in front of a crowd and get some of those nerves out of the way and get a feel for what the Big House may be like in the fall,” Rodriguez said Saturday.