Michigan football looks to clean up special teams play against Air Force
Wolverines try to clean up special teams mistakes before Big Ten season
ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Through two weeks, the Michigan football season has been mostly positive. Jim Harbaugh's team is 2-0 and has jumped from No. 11 to No. 7 in the AP Poll after fairly convincing wins over Florida and Cincinnati.
Defensively, the Wolverines have exceeded expectations, allowing just 17 points in two games while scoring three defensive touchdowns. From the loaded defensive line to the improving secondary, Don Brown has done an excellent job so far.
On offense, the issues are well-documented. Ty Isaac has been the hero, rushing for 251 total yards and 8 yards per carry. Beyond Isaac, the running backs have struggled and the passing attack has been inconsistent at best. But Harbaugh has a long track record of building productive offenses and improving quarterbacks -- just ask Jake Rudock.
Michigan knows what it has on offense and defense, but the real mystery this season has been the special teams unit. There have been flashes of brilliance and major mistakes, but the overall concern is consistency. Saturday is Michigan's last chance to make tweaks before Big Ten play begins.
Field goal kicking
The positive takeaway on special teams has been the field goal unit.
Quinn Nordin looks like a weapon as a redshirt freshman, as he's already converted two field goals of at least 50 yards. Nordin took advantage of playing in a dome his first game, converting on a 55-yarder and a 50-yarder.
He missed two kicks, but converting four field goals was a good start for Nordin.
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While long field goals make highlight reels, the most important part of Nordin's job is to make the easy kicks. When a kicker misses a short field goal, it can be deflating for the offense and give the opposing team life. So far, Nordin has converted four of five attempts from closer than 50 yards.
Nordin and defending Holder of the Year winner Garrett Moores are the least of Michigan's worries on special teams.
Since the line of scrimmage following touchbacks was moved to the 25-yard line, kickoffs have become a less prominent part of the game. But Michigan knows as well as any team that mistakes on kicks can be deadly.
In the Orange Bowl against Florida State, Michigan had finally taken its first lead when Kenny Allen's short kickoff was returned for the eventual winning touchdown. It was a dagger for Michigan after it clawed all the way back from a huge deficit.
This season, nobody has noticed Michigan's kickoff unit, which is a compliment. James Foug has taken over the full kickoff duties, and the lefty is doing a nice job.
In 15 kicks, Foug has recorded 10 touchbacks -- good for the 19th-best touchback percentage in the country. He's avoided any big mistakes, and the coverage team has been solid.
The Wolverines have only returned four kickoffs for an average of 19 yards, so they've been mediocre in that aspect.
The unit that has been really shaky for Michigan is the punt return group, which has flirted with disaster several times throughout the first two games.
In the game against Cincinnati, Donovan Peoples-Jones lost his punt-return job after two straight kicks bounced off Michigan blockers. The second kick was recovered by Cincinnati, which gave the Bearcat offense a short field. It turned a game that appeared to be heading for a blowout into a close battle.
Peoples-Jones was hesitant to call for a fair catch against Florida, and he's fielded two dangerous punts off the bounce. Harbaugh elected to make a change when it became apparent that Peoples-Jones wasn't completely comfortable in the role.
Grant Perry settled things down after taking over the role, and Harbaugh will get the rest of the mistakes sorted out. But Peoples-Jones has the highest ceiling of any punt returner, so it would be best for Michigan if he wins the job back.
Punters don't often get any glory, but they also don't get much praise.
Most Michigan fans didn't know Will Hart's name until he shanked back-to-back punts in a close game against Cincinnati. The ball went off the side of his foot twice in a row, and Hart was credited with 21-yard punts.
With a dominant defense like Michigan's, it's critical for Hart to make opposing offenses start with a long field. The only reason Cincinnati stayed in the game was because Michigan's special teams gave the Bearcat offense too many short fields.
If a team is going to score against Michigan's defense, Hart needs to make them go 80 yards to do so.
Despite his two bad punts, Hart has been good overall this season. He is averaging just under 40 yards per punt, but his average would be much higher if he was kicking with more field to work with. When he really let it fly against Cincinnati, he booted a 61-yarder.
Hart has also pinned opponents inside their own 20-yard line on five of his nine punts, meaning he's doing exactly what was mentioned above: giving Don Brown's defense a long field to work with.
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