- Chantel Jennings, ESPN Staff Writer
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Michigan coach Brady Hoke looks at special teams not as a secondary part of the game, but an equal third of the team. He has given out multiple scholarships to special teams players, even when he's been tighter on the scholarship numbers in certain classes. Through four games, here’s the grade on how that third of the team has done so far.
It’s hard to imagine the struggles Brendan Gibbons had a few seasons ago when looking at his results today. He set a school record of 16 consecutive made field goals (which came to an end in a 45-yard miss against Akron). On the season, he’s 4-of-5 and has made all 20 PATs. There’s not really much worry when Gibbons takes the field, and the fact that people were surprised when he missed shows how far the kicking game has come.
Punting/kickoffs: B-minus to C-plus
With Will Hagerup suspended the first four games of the season (haven’t we heard that somewhere before?) junior Matt Wile has been called upon for punting duties. His average of 36.5 yards per punt ranks him at No. 147 in the nation. Wile has accounted for zero touchbacks, and he's gotten the ball inside the opponent’s 20-yard line just twice. Following a really terrible performance vs. Akron, Hoke said that Wile spoke with his punting guru, and the results improved against UConn when he averaged 42.4 yards per punt. To put it in perspective, the country’s best punter (who has punted 10 or more times) is Texas A&M’s Drew Kaser, who averages 50.5 yards per punt, has three touchbacks and has punt it inside the 20-yard line five times. If he punted like that all season his grade would be much higher, but the Wolverines need more consistency. With kickoffs, Wile has averaged 62.5 yards per kick, and 16-of-28 times, he has recorded a touchback. Five times Wile has gotten the ball inside the opponents 25-yard line. The national average is four. But with distance -- as far as the nation's best and Wile -- he's not far off. Missouri's Andrew Baggett leads the nation in kickoffs, averaging 65.4 yards per kickoff, just 2.9 yards more than Wile.
This grade took a hit with the punt return miscommunication suffered against UConn. Freshman Da’Mario Jones fumbled/failed to react to the punt, and the Huskies took over at the 9-yard line and scored a TD two plays later. Hoke used senior Drew Dileo on returns more during the UConn game, so there might be a bit more growth there with the experience factor that Dileo brings to the return game. But the Wolverines are still averaging just 22.5 yards per kick return (No. 48 in the country). In the Big Ten, Michigan is eighth in kick returns, trailing Northwestern, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Ohio State, Illinois and Purdue. The Wolverines have also only accounted for 7.1 yards per punt return (66th in the country). In the Big Ten alone, the Wolverines are 10th in yards per punt return, behind Iowa, Indiana, Minnesota, Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan State, Purdue, Illinois and Wisconsin. In the Big Ten for kick returns Michigan is eighth, trailing Northwestern, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Ohio State, Illinois and Purdue.
12dMitch Sherman and Josh Moyer