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Australians like UM's O'Neill change American punt game

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — It isn't exactly an Australian invasion into the American college football world, but as far as kicking goes, the Aussies are establishing a presence.

Michigan has its own in graduate-transfer Blake O'Neill, and the Wolverines have faced four this season. And because their skill is so well-honed, considering punting is to Australian rules football what passing is to American football, they make life difficult for returners.

"I'm really pleased with the punt return," Michigan special teams director John Baxter said Wednesday. "The amazing thing is we've had 51 reps in five games — obviously it's because we've played amazing defense — but if you really look at what that unit has done, there have been three returnable balls kicked to us out of 51.

"We've had our round-robin with all the Australian rugby punters in the first four games and everybody found out it's really hard to return one of those. Three returnable balls and the baseball analogy is we've hit the ball hard. Unfortunately, we've hit the ball off the wall for doubles and triples, we haven't had a home run yet."

Rudock, Michigan finding their footing together

But safety Jabrill Peppers said he believes he's close to breaking a return, and he will get another opportunity against Northwestern on Saturday at Michigan Stadium.

"The thing that goes unsaid is Jabrill's amazing decision-making back there, the decision to not risk balls that shouldn't be touched, ball on the ground, protecting his teammates," Baxter said.

Baxter said the search for another Australian punter has begun. Why? Because their skill-set "doesn't exist in this country," he said.

"Here's what I can say, punter is the hardest position on your whole football team to find," Baxter said. "You can find kickers, you can find defensive linemen. ... Punters are becoming kind of like endangered species because there's no skill-set anywhere in any sport you play in this country that has you drop a rhomboid spheroid flat and try to hit it with your foot."

Baxter, who has coached mostly in the West, said he is learning how much wind is a factor in this part of the country. At Maryland last Saturday, the wind was tricky.

"When we played in the West, we had breezes," Baxter said. "This has been wind, even the nice days. Every day we get to kick into the wind."

The kicking game hasn't been perfect for Michigan, though. Tailback Ty Isaac was called for a roughing the kicker last week, and a week before, O'Neill opted to run the ball on fourth-and-16.

Baxter said Isaac misplayed the situation and went after the punter, not the ball. O'Neill has the green light to run, and that gives opponents something else to consider.

"He has that option every time," Baxter said. "If people know he's going to run, I think that's good for us because he's going to run."

As far as the botched squib kick before halftime at Maryland, Baxter didn't seem to think it was much of an issue. He said part of the problem was making sure Terrapins returner Will Likely didn't touch the ball.

"If the biggest problem on your whole football team is a squib kick that went 12 yards too short, you're doing a good job," he said. "I've seen NBA players shoot airballs on free throws, too."

Filling the void

Michigan starting Buck linebacker Mario Ojemudia tweeted Wednesday, "Surgery tomorrow morning!"

The surgery will repair the Achilles tendon injury Ojemudia suffered last week.

Royce Jenkins-Stone is expected to move into the starting lineup against the Wildcats.

"We'll mix it around a little bit," defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin said. "We have some depth there, and we have some guys that can do that. We'll play several guys like we always do."

Lawrence Marshall is the backup.

Northwestern at Michigan

Kickoff: 3:30 p.m. Saturday, Michigan Stadium, Ann Arbor

TV/radio: BTN/WWJ

Records: No. 13 Northwestern 5-0 (1-0 Big Ten), No. 18 Michigan 4-1 (1-0)

Line: Michigan by 8

Series: Michigan leads 56-15-2