The Wolverine

2020 Football Preview

The Wolverine: Covering University of Michigan Football and Sports

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118 ■ THE WOLVERINE 2020 FOOTBALL PREVIEW SPECIAL TEAMS BY CHRIS BALAS T here have been many years when Michigan has entered a football season with huge question marks at kicker and punter. There's uncertainty entering the 2020 season, too, but it has nothing to do with finding capable bodies. There's outstanding and proven personnel at kicker, punter and in the return game to the point that special teams coordinator Jay Harbaugh is spoiled with options. At placekicker, fifth-year senior Quinn Nordin, once the 'forgotten man' after ju- nior Jake Moody surpassed him two years ago and made 10 of his 11 kicks, returns after reclaiming his job last season. After the two started 2019 with alternating kicks and Nordin missing his first three tries, he edged ahead late in the year while making each of his last 10 tries over the last five games. Moody, meanwhile, handled the kickoffs and made six of his nine field goal attempts, competing hard with Nordin before giving way for the last four games. "Moody and Quinn are two guys who could start anywhere," former Michigan kicker Brandon Kornblue, now the lead man at the esteemed Kornblue Kicking School based in Florida, said. "Then at punter you have Brad Robbins with Will Hart — two really, really talented guys there." Kornblue has worked with all four, knows their strengths and weaknesses, and envies their coaches in one way and sympathizes for them in another. Whoever wins the jobs will have earned the right; at the same time, he added, the U-M staff will be facing some tough decisions without having had spring ball to help make them. At kicker, Nordin and Moody have been pushing each other and gone back and forth for the last two years. Nordin is in his last season and an NFL hopeful, and he's been working during the offseason on his kickoffs to try to compete for the job that Moody has held the last two years. Nordin traveled to Florida to work out with Kornblue and hone his craft, staying through May during social-distancing protocol. "Quinn will press to do everything," Korn- blue predicted. "For the next level, you need to show that you can do kickoffs, so that's why he's working on that. He has the leg for it; there's no shortage of strength there. "He just needs practice to make it auto- matic. What we were really trying to accom- plish was just getting him comfortable again with kickoffs. The last couple years he hasn't done kickoffs at Michigan, just field goals in games. "It's about getting him in that groove again, trying to be careful and pace it out so he didn't do too much, too fast. He needs to gradually work his way back into it. In that respect, the quarantine situation was benefi- cial in that it allowed him to do that and for us to work on that without the pressure of having to perform next week or in spring practice." If Nordin were to win both jobs — and that's a big 'if' given how well Moody has performed in his two years on kickoffs — the coaches would hypothetically be able to red- shirt Moody and have him for two more years. Moody, though, has his own goals. "Jake wants to do both, too, and he's also very good," Kornblue said. "With this being Quinn's fifth year, it's going to be interesting to see how that plays out. "It's obviously up to the coaches. I really believe there's no tandem of kickers that matches what is there in Ann Arbor right now. They are both NFL-level guys, but only one can play. It's tricky, but the competition is there. It happens at every other position, and now it's the case at kicker." Last year, the battle was so tight in spring and preseason camp that Nordin and Moody started the season literally sharing the job. The coaches wanted to split the roles last season with a separate punter, field goal and kickoff guy, and it stands to reason that could be the case again this year. Long snapper, meanwhile, should be in great hands with fifth-year senior Camaron Cheeseman (6-4, 230) returning with three years' experience. "I don't see anything changing there," Kornblue said. "He has an NFL mold to him and has the potential to take his game to the next level, which would be great. Sean Grif- fin [2005-08] was the first Michigan long snapper to be invited to the NFL Combine, and I don't think they've ever had an NFL guy in that role." Cheeseman and Hart, the fifth-year senior punter, worked well together when it came to snapping and holding, and that should be the combination again in 2020. Up For Grabs Special Teams Feature Great Options At All Positions Fifth-year senior Will Hart was named the Big Ten Punter of the Year and a second- team All-American by Sports Illustrated during the 2018 season, but his numbers regressed a little last year and he will have to fend off teammate Brad Robbins for the starting spot once again. PHOTO BY LON HORWEDEL FYI According to Football Outsiders' Fre- meau Efficiency Index (which represents the per-possession scoring advantage a team's combined special teams units would be expected to have on a neu- tral field against an average opponent), Michigan had the second-best special teams unit nationally last year, based on the opponent-adjusted ratings. U- M's standout areas included opponent field goal efficiency, after foes missed three of six tries (sixth nationally); kick return efficiency (10th); and punt ef- ficiency (24th). Sophomore Giles Jackson is one of only two players in Michigan history with touchdowns scored via kick return, re- ceiving and rushing in a freshman season (Gil Chapman, 1972). Jackson's 97-yard kick return for touchdown at Maryland was the fifth-longest in Michigan history. The Wolverines ranked 11th nationally last year with an average of 25.6 yards on 26 kickoff returns, and welcome back Jackson, who handled 24 of 26 kickoffs last year (viper Michael Barrett fielded the other two) and finished with a clip of 25.9 yards per runback, good for 19th nationally last year and 10th in the U-M single-season record books. That would rank third, behind only Desmond How- ard (26.9, 1989-91) and Anthony Carter (26.3, 1979-82), in career average (mini- mum 20 returns). Fifth-year senior Quinn Nordin already shares Michigan records for most 40-yard-plus field goals in a career (13) and most 50-yarders (four). He enters 2020 tied for fifth on U-M's all-time list for field goals made (39), and is tied for the longest make in school history (57-yarder vs. Alabama in the Citrus Bowl). Fifth-year senior punter Will Hart holds U-M records for punting average in a game (59.3, set in 2018), season (47.0 in 2018) and career (44.5). Last year's 44.2 clip ranked fourth on the single- season list.

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