The Wolverine

2014 Michigan Football Preview

The Wolverine: Covering University of Michigan Football and Sports

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176 ■ THE WOLVERINE 2014 FOOTBALL PREVIEW ST "The guy back there has to make good decisions," Ferrigno said. "But when you do catch it, you're always looking for at least a first down — 10 yards. If you average 10 yards, it's great." The Wolverines haven't had a season average of 10 or more yards per punt return since 2006 (10.8 yards per return). The team's best return average in the Brady Hoke era was 9.0 yards per return in 2011. The unit bottomed out last year, averaging just 6.3 yards per attempt (No. 91 nationally). For comparison's sake, there were 41 teams who hit the plateau of 10.0 yards per return last sea- son — including North Carolina, which led the country (18.3 yards per return). Initially, the Wolverines planned to be more aggressive on punt return last year, putting then-sophomore Dennis Norfleet back there for the first two games. Unfortunately, he tallied negative-one yard on three returns and nearly coughed up the ball once against Central Michigan. "We had him back there early in the year, and he made a couple bad decisions that almost hurt us," Ferrigno said. "The ball almost hit him a couple times, when he should have been away from the ball. You have to make good decisions, and that is why, as the year went on, Drew Dileo and Jeremy Gallon were back there. They were safe." Norfleet registered an 11-yard return and a career-long 42-yard return on his only two punt returns in 2012. His gung-ho approach is an asset on kickoff return, where he is poised to surpass Steve Breaston's Michigan career records in total kickoff returns (81) and kickoff return yards (1,993) by early Sep- tember (Norfleet has tallied 75 returns and 1,765 yards in his first two seasons). "He is fun to watch," Ferringo said. "Dennis could make three guys miss in a phone booth. He has great vision. He has a herky-jerky running style and he is tough, which is what you want in a kickoff returner. You're going to take some whacks, and that never seems to bother Dennis." But, in order to return punts, Norfleet has to show he can use a little more restraint — and know when to take off and when to signal for the fair catch. If he improves his decision-making, Norfleet could be a potential game breaker in that capacity. "He has a knack for it," Ferringo said. "A lot of kids don't have a knack for it. We're trying to teach him to catch punts. We're still working with him on that, because we think he brings even more to the punt return game than he does to kickoffs. If you watch good punt returners, it's one quick move and they go, and Dennis has that quick move. Now, it's just getting him confident in catching the ball and making good decisions. We have to see improvement there, and he could be back there, too." But Norfleet will have to win the job. The Wolverines are cycling through myriad skill players when they run punt return drills in practice, including sophomore cornerback Jourdan Lewis, redshirt sophomore wide receiver Amara Darboh, freshman wide receiver Freddy Canteen and sophomore cornerback Channing Stribling. When five-star defensive back Jabrill Peppers joins the fold, he will be given a shot, too. Until Norfleet — or another player — emerges as the clear-cut No. 1 punt returner, the Wolverines will give a shot to anyone who wants to give it a try. "That is always a funny meeting, the first one," Ferrigno said. "You say, 'How many guys want to return kickoffs?' and all the hands shoot in the air. The whole room, all the skill guys. Then you say, 'How many punt returners do we have?' and they're all sitting on their hands. No one wants to be a punt returner, because you're out there alone, in front of God and country. There is a lot of pressure on punt returners." Filling Out The Lineups As for the rest of his special teams units, Ferrigno is still in a pre- carious position — he won't know who will fill out the 11 positions on the kickoff, kickoff return, punt, punt return and field goal units until the Wolverines get in the thick of fall camp. That is partly because he has to wait and see how the offensive and defensive two-deep depth charts shake out, and partly because he and the coaching staff like to use young talent on special teams, in order to give them a chance to gain some experience and make a name for themselves. Ferrigno explained his philosophy of filling out the special teams lineups. "Each position, whether it be on punt or kick return or whatever, has a specific skill set you need," Ferrigno said. "If you're an upfront guy on kickoff return, you have to get back, get your hips around and block a guy, which takes some guys out of it. On punt, you need reli- able, smart guys who can kick-slide back and block a gap. On punt return, you're looking for different types of athletes, whether it's the punt block team or the return team. Kickoff, you want trained killers who can run. You identify those guys through fall. "We line them up and work it, whittle it down to a two- and three- deep, based on the guys we want and the guys who are going to travel. We have a rule that if you're an offensive or defensive starter, the most teams you can start on is two. I would take [fifth-year se- nior linebacker] Jake Ryan or [redshirt sophomore wide receiver] Jehu Chesson on every team if I could, but that doesn't make sense. They're not going to play on more than two. Then you take out the offensive and defensive linemen, because there isn't much they do in special teams, other than field goal, and you're looking at your core of linebackers, receivers, tight ends and defensive backs — that is where the majority comes from. "Not wanting to overwork the starters, what you're going to do is look at the young guys. They may play some on offense or defense, but special teams allows them to get a ton of experience on the field. Last year, we had eight freshmen on the kickoff team. … All that experience on special teams is going to make us a better football team." ❏ QUICK FACTS Position Coach: Dan Ferrigno (fourth season as tight ends and special teams coach). Returning Starters: K/P Matt Wile and KR Dennis Norfleet. Departing Starters: K Brendan Gibbons, KR/PR Drew Dileo, PR Jeremy Gallon and LS Jareth Glanda. Projected New Starters: P Will Hagerup, KR Jabrill Peppers, PR Dennis Norfleet and LS Scott Sypniewski. Top Reserves: KR/PR Jehu Chesson and K/P Kenny Allen. Newcomers: Peppers. Moved In: None. Moved Out: None. Rookie Impact: Peppers. Most Improved Player: Wile. Best Pro Prospect: Wile. FYI: Wile's 52-yard field goal against South Carolina in the 2013 Outback Bowl is tied for the third-longest converted attempt in program history (Hayden Epstein owns the Michigan record with a 57-yard boot against Michigan State in 2001 and also kicked a 56-yarder against Michigan State in 1999) … Both Hagerup and Wile rank in the top 10 in career punting average (minimum 75 attempts) in program history; Hagerup ranks No. 4 (41.8 yards per punt), and Wile ranks No. 7 (40.2 yards per punt … Hagerup has two of the best three season averages (minimum 30 punts) in program history; his 2012 average of 45.0 yards per punt ranks No. 1 in program history and his 2010 average of 43.6 yards per punt ranks No. 3 (Zoltan Mesko's 2009 average of 44.5 yards per punt ranks second) … Norfleet and Anthony Carter (1979-82) are the only two players who rank in the top five in career kickoff return yards who have not scored a touchdown … Michigan scored one special teams touchdown last year, when wide receiver Joe Reynolds returned a blocked punt against Central Michigan … The Wolverines have not had a punt returner bring back a punt for a touchdown since 2008 (Martavious Odoms, 73 yards versus Purdue), nor a kickoff for a touchdown since 2009 (Darryl Stonum, 94 yards versus Notre Dame). 174-177.STs.indd 176 6/19/14 3:14 PM

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