Over the next few weeks, WolverineNation will look at every position on the Michigan roster and give a depth chart analysis of each position on the roster heading into the offseason.
Over the past few seasons, it appears as if Michigan has spent more scholarships and time focused on its special teams -- and with good reason. Since Zoltan Mesko left the Wolverines after the 2009 season, there have been lingering questions about all of Michigan’s specialists.
And even when Mesko was in Ann Arbor, there were concerns, although not about their now-Pro Bowl punter.
This season, though, has the potential to become Michigan’s best special teams season in a long time.
The starters: Sophomore Dennis Norfleet at kick returner and punt returner. Redshirt freshman Drake Johnson at kick returner. Fifth-year senior Brendan Gibbons at kicker and junior Matt Wile at punter. Norfleet was good as a kick returner as a freshman and with an offseason better to understand blocking schemes and cuts , he should be better as a sophomore. He also should beat out Jeremy Gallon at punt returner -- something which wouldn’t be a bad thing for the Wolverines considering Gallon is likely to be Michigan’s top receiver. Johnson’s speed makes him an intriguing second returner. Gibbons returns as one of the nation’s best kickers and Wile could beat out Will Hagerup -- more on that later -- for the punting job.
The depth: Gallon and Drew Dileo as returners. Wile and Kenny Allen at kicker and Allen and Hagerup at punter. Gallon did a decent job as Michigan’s punt returner, but he never quite showed the explosiveness Norfleet could provide, plus it would be one less thing for him to do to concentrate on being Michigan’s top target. Dileo is a safe option for returning depth, too. Wile will likely back up Gibbons as the kicker and be the long-range guy and Allen could be a reliable backup option who could fill in somewhere in 2014 when Gibbons graduates. Hagerup, who was suspended for the Outback Bowl, is the ultimate wild card.
The question mark: Hagerup. The senior has been suspended in each of his three seasons at Michigan and it is unclear at this point whether he will be on Michigan’s team next season. If he is, he could easily win the punting job as he was one of the best punters in the nation last season and has an NFL-caliber leg. But he has not played a full season since arriving at Michigan, so the Wolverines have to be prepared for life without him.
The bottom line: For the first time in many seasons, Michigan can feel confident about all of its special teams. Gibbons and Wile/Hagerup have the potential to be award-winners next season, and Norfleet has shown the potential to be something really special as a returner. Coverage teams should also be better as most of the freshmen on those teams return as sophomores.