- Chantel Jennings, ESPN Staff Writer
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The spring game is a preview for the season and with so many early enrollees this year, it really is going to give fans and the media a pretty good look at what next year could hold for the Wolverines. So leading up to the scrimmage, we’re going to look a few stats that really matter for next season for Michigan if the Wolverines want to make the Big Ten Championship game.
Stat: Average distance from goal after kickoff returns (tomorrow, we’ll look at punt returns).
2013 review: Coach Brady Hoke has made it very clear that he sees the special teams as the third facet of his team. Sometimes coaches focus on offense and defense and barely give a second thought to special teams. However, Hoke has personally worked with the kickers, given scholarships to long snappers and put emphasis on the return game.
But in 2013, the return game was a big issue for the Wolverines. On average, Michigan was 73.6 yards from the goal line after kick returns (80th nationally). With the Wolverines averaging 5.4 yards per play, that means that it would take 14 plays to reach to the end zone if they met that average. However, the Wolverines only had 22 drives this season (of their 167) that were at least 10 plays. That means most drives ended in Michigan not reaching the goal line. Of Michigan’s 167 drives last season, only 40 gained for 60 yards or more, and only 11 gained 80 yards or more.
From an efficiency standpoint, there’s a general stat in football that every offense wants -- to have more drives that end in a touchdown than drives that end without a touchdown or first down. Michigan didn’t achieve that last season. Of their 167 drives, 54 ended without a first down/touchdown and 48 ended in a touchdown. By comparison, Florida State, which had 176 drives, had 84 of its drives end in a touchdown and only 38 end without a first down/touchdown. Obviously not all of these drives begin after a kickoff return, but improvement certainly can be made in the return game.
On 15.7 percent of kickoff returns, the Wolverines gained at least 30 yards (eight of the 51 returns). TCU led the nation in this statistic, returning one-third of its 39 returns at least 30 yards. Future Big Ten member Maryland finished in the top 10 nationally, returning 23.5 percent of its returns at least 30 yards. Ohio State finished 34th nationally (17.2 percent) and Nebraska finished 35th nationally (17.1 percent).
Only 43 teams this season scored on a kickoff return. Michigan wasn’t one of them. The Wolverines averaged 22.1 yards per kickoff return (49th nationally). Wisconsin led the Big Ten in kickoff returns at 23.1 yards per return.
On the surface, one yard isn’t a lot of difference, but wouldn’t that one extra yard have been nice against Ohio State this season? Or where would the Wolverines have been in the past few seasons against Notre Dame if they were moved back a yard on certain drives?
2014 outlook: Dennis Norfleet is back and will be looked to in these situations. But he’s going to need to be much more productive than he was last season. As a whole, the Wolverines weren’t super efficient in this category. Norfleet didn’t break many tackles and never found the open field in the return game.
This is certainly an area in which Jabrill Peppers could make an impact if the coaches allow him to play something other than defense this season. Other candidates include Jourdan Lewis or Da'Mario Jones, quick-footed receivers who could make an impact. Field position is so crucial, and this is where it starts.
• Most of the teams that started at or fewer than 70 yards from the end zone were teams that did well last season: Stanford, Florida State, Alabama, Oklahoma, UCLA. So what does Michigan need to do to get to that 70-yard mark? Averaging 22.1 yards per return isn’t going to do it. If the Wolverines can improve that by one yard, they’d be in the top 30 nationally. If they could improve it by two yards, they’d be in the top 15. That’s the difference between a player holding a block for half a second longer or the returner falling forward. Little things make a big difference. A block here, a yard here and a step there can be the difference between a touchdown and a punt.
The spring game is a preview for the season and with so many early enrollees this year, it really is going to give fans and the media a pretty good look at what next year could hold for the Wolverines.