UM special teams will be decided by 'competitive excellence'

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — One thing is becoming clear — a Michigan depth chart won't come in handy when the Wolverines open their season at Utah this week.

Oh, the player names will all be there, but if the coaches are to be taken at their word, position battles are ongoing and may not be decided until kickoff Thursday night.

The quarterback battle between Jake Rudock and Shane Morris has been the most discussed during camp, but mostly unnoticed yet not less important are those most critical positions involved in the kicking game.

There haven't been raging debates about who the kicker might be, or the punter, or even the returners, and special teams coordinator John Baxter said while he might have gut feelings about who will be on the field first at Utah, that won't officially be decided until pregame.

That's mainly because preseason camp doesn't offer a true test for the kickers in a game-like setting, despite the drills where the players and coaches are applying as much of a pressure atmosphere as possible.

"It's very hard to simulate a kickoff or a punt in practice (like) the intensity of the game," Baxter said Saturday after practice.

Kyle Seychel, Kenny Allen and freshman Andrew David, the only scholarship player of the group, are competing for the place-kicking job.

"This competition is going to go all the way up until pregame," Baxter said. "There's really no need to pick one at this point, because none of them have been in a game and coach (Jim) Harbaugh really believes in competitive excellence at every position. Those guys are duking it out. They took equal turns (Saturday in practice), each of them got four kicks. They've been getting equal turns in camp.

"They've done a nice job. There's not an established starter there."

Baxter admitted he has a gut feeling right now who will kick at Utah.

"I do, but it's going to stay in my gut," he said, laughing. "It might stay in my gut until pregame, and it's in coach Harbaugh's gut, too. That's really not that coach speak avoid-the-question thing — it really is what the challenge is to this football team. We're going to compete right up until the time. You might see a couple players kick in this game."

Allen is also in the mix at punter with graduate-transfer Blake O'Neill, a native Australian who kicked for Weber State last year.

While the possibility of a two-quarterback system has been bandied about among Michigan observers, Baxter said he might be breaking new ground in that realm at punter.

"They will both punt for Michigan this year," Baxter said. "Blake has some skills that Kenny doesn't have, Kenny has some skills Blake doesn't have.

"Blake came here to want to be a pro in one year, and Kenny has really embraced being accurate. Here's the thing, they're both good. Kenny has improved a lot, Blake adds some nice depth there, and they'll both play. I don't know how often you see a two-punter system, but we've got one."

Baxter broke down the strengths of both punters.

"(O'Neill) can hit all four panels on the ball," Baxter said. "He can bend it left to right, right to left, he can back 'em up, he can release them forward. Kenny's an American-style punter that drops it and hits a spiral. Kenny's gotten more accurate, and Blake has really developed a good spiral. It's been really cool to watch these two that grew up thousands of miles apart teach each other some skills."

The returners seem more or less determined, although Baxter said he will play quite a few throughout the year and reiterated the entire special teams is "a work in progress". But for starters as returners, count on Jabrill Peppers, Jehu Chesson, Dymonte Thomas and Jourdan Lewis to return both kicks and punts.

Peppers, of course, has drawn the most attention in the offseason. Highly recruited out of New Jersey, Peppers sat most of his freshman season last year because of leg injuries. He has moved from cornerback to safety and Harbaugh has suggested he will get some action on offense and will play in the return game potentially making him a three-way threat.

"Jabrill, as we all know, is a very talented football player," Baxter said. "I always say talent is the raw material and technique is the finished product. Not only is he talented, but he works really hard to be good, to do the little things very well."