Special teams used to be a huge source of pride for University of Michigan Football fans. Michigan had a seemingly endless stream of dangerous punt and kickoff returners dating back to the days of Anthony Carter some 30 years ago. Not only that, they've sent some very good kickers and punters to the NFL over the years.
In short, special teams was rarely something Michigan fans were worried about until recently.
Although it is unclear who is to blame for the virtual demise of Michigan's special teams, most of the ugliness started when Rich Rodriguez came to Ann Arbor in 2008. The new Michigan coach struggled all year to find a punt returner who didn't fumble or make other crucial mistakes deep in their own territory.
Thing is, punt returns continued to be a problem under Rodriguez all three of his years at Michigan.
The kickoff-return game wasn't great in 2008 either, but Darryl Stonum stepped into the role the next year. His 1,001 kickoff-return yards in 2009 set a new school record. He evoked memories of great Michigan kickoff returners like Derrick Alexander, Desmond Howard and Steve Breaston.
Stonum had another good year returning kicks in 2010, sporting a 23.3 average before he was relieved of that role due to an injury he suffered on a return against Wisconsin.
Will he go back to returning kicks in 2011 under new Michigan head coach Brady Hoke? Will Hoke be daring enough to put electric signal-caller Denard Robinson back to return kicks?
If there was a bigger weakness than Michigan's awful 110th-ranked defense in 2010, it was in the kicking game. Michigan kickers had just seven touchbacks (four after September) and went a combined 4/14 on FGA with a long of 37 yards. Seth Broekhuizen and Brendan Gibbons were both 0/2 on attempts of 40 yards or over.
Will incoming freshman Matt Wile solve the team's kicking woes?
Will Hagerup made sure punting was still the strong suit of the special-teams unit for Michigan in 2010. He averaged 43.6 yards per punt as a freshman, and Wolverines never felt the loss of fan favorite Zoltan Mesko.
Can Hagerup improve on a strong freshman performance?
Special teams will get nothing but better for Michigan moving forward into the 2011 football season—let's take a look and see why.
WR Junior Hemingway
At 6'1", 225 pounds, senior-to-be Junior Hemingway is hardly the typical punt-return man.
His 4.58 40 time won't scare many teams, but he's the perfect punt returner in many ways. Hemingway has big, strong hands and is very difficult to bring down due to his upper and lower body strength. Not a natural sprinter, he excels in one-on-one situations with smaller defenders; he can either juke them or toss them out of his way.
Although his straight-line speed isn't ideal for a punt returner, Hemingway is very fast in bursts and fast enough to burn an opposing team for a touchdown. Although he had just one return last year, the South Carolina native returned it for 34 yards.
Hemingway has been prone to injuries throughout his Michigan career, but that probably won't stop Hoke and company from putting him back to return punts this year.
Another option at punt returner will be another senior-to-be, Martavious Odoms. Odoms was the last Wolverine to return a punt for a touchdown, when he did it against Purdue in 2008 as a freshman. He's returned 17 punts for an average of 11.4 yards per punt return.
Odoms should see action in this capacity this season, as he goes into summer practices no better than the fourth receiver on the depth chart—which is filled with quality talent.
True freshman Drew Dileo returned two punts for 13 yards in 2010, and will be in the mix to return punts as well. How much action he gets in this role will depend on how much the coaching staff wants to protect Hemingway and Odoms from injury.
WR Darryl Stonum
How much of Michigan's considerable speed resources is Hoke willing to allocate to returning kicks? This question will be answered by who he chooses to return kicks this fall.
Rodriguez left Hoke with several players who could do well in a kick-returner capacity, but two of those players stand out—head and shoulders—above the crowd.
Stonum is the obvious choice to return kicks. He already owns the team record for most kick return yardage in one season, and he is one of the fastest players on a team full of fast players. His career average of around 24 yards per return in just over 60 kickoff returns is rock-solid, and he was the last Wolverine to return a kickoff for a touchdown when he did it in 2009.
The not-so-obvious choice? How about the Heisman Trophy candidate, quarterback Denard Robinson?
While Robinson has never returned a kick at Michigan, one look at his very long highlight reel screams All-American return man. He ran for 1702 yards last season, including runs of 87 and 72 yards. His 4.32 time in the 40 and 10.44 100-meter time will make him a commodity as a kick returner in the NFL.
Will Hoke be so bold as to use his best player at such an injury-prone position?
Can Matt Wile be the next Remy Hamilton (pictured)?
One look at Matt Wile's senior-year video speaks to his kicking ability. The incoming freshman from California will have the weight of the Wolverine nation on his shoulders this fall—can a teenager handle that?
Wile, like Gibbons, was a U.S. Army All-American in high school. Like Gibbons, Wile comes with the strongest of recommendations from a top kicking guru. After watching Gibbons go 1/5 on FG attempts, who's to say Wile will fare better?
A fair question, indeed.
Unlike Gibbons, Wile kicked field goals all this season and last without a kicking block and his kickoffs from a 1" tee—just like all NCAA kickers must. The powerful Gibbons has yet to make the technique adjustments necessary to be a good college kicker.
Walk-on Seth Broekuisen did an admirable job last year when he stepped into a role he wasn't meant to have—starting kicker. He did his best last year, but struggled to plant his kickoffs inside the 10-yard line and he went 3/13 on FGA. Broekuisen did go 42/43 on his PATs, and he'll most likely be insurance in the event something happens to Wile.
Is Will Hagerup the next Zoltan Mesko (pictured)?
Will Hagerup came to Michigan as the best punting prospect anyone had seen in a few years. There weren't too may Wolverine fans who were worried about that, though. What everyone wanted to know was: Is he better than Zoltan Mesko?
Mesko, who was drafted in the sixth round by the New England Patriots in 2010, had become somewhat of a cult hero in Ann Arbor. Arguably the MVP of the 2008 and 2009 Michigan teams, Mesko was constantly punting the sporadic-at-best Wolverine offense out of trouble several times per game.
Like Hagerup, Mesko is blessed with a thunderous kicking leg. In fact, Hagerup showed more consistency than Mesko as a freshman. Will he progress, like his predecessor, into an All-American candidate by his senior year? His 43.6 punting average as a freshman says yes, and Hagerup will do a great job for Michigan again in 2011.