Michigan rocking and rolling on special teams
Ann Arbor — So much of the focus through the first third of Michigan’s regular season has been on the offense and defense.
But the Wolverines’ special teams has had some special moments.
Among the highlights, they have scored two touchdowns, one off a kickoff and the other a punt. Ambry Thomas sprinted 99 yards for a kickoff return at Notre Dame giving the Wolverines a spark and Donovan Peoples-Jones scored on a 60-yard punt return that featured a spin move last Saturday against Nebraska. Khaleke Hudson blocked a punt in the Western Michigan game that set up a touchdown.
“Consistently good plus they’ve made the big play on every phase, return for a touchdown, tackles inside the 20, turnovers on the punt, scoring on kickoff return and the punt return,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said Monday of the Wolverines’ special teams. “Making the big plays. Can’t ask for more than that.”
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The kickers have been consistent, as well. Freshman Jake Moody handles kickoffs and 17 of 29 kicks have been touchbacks. Punter Will Hart has had nine of 11 punts go 50 yards or more — Michigan had five last season. Hart leads the Big Ten in punting average (52.6).
Quinn Nordin is 21-of-22 on extra points and is 4-of-5 on field goals. He made a 50-yard field goal against Nebraska, the third in his career of 50 or more.
“He’s made the field goals,” Harbaugh said. “Nice to see they were big field goals. One in the SMU game made it a three-score game, 45-, 46-yard field goal. Came back this week and hit a 50-yarder. Good to see him go out there and bang it. Didn’t hesitate in making the call for him to kick it. When he comes through, it’s good.”
Harbaugh said he probably should have given Nordin, who had plenty of leg on the 50-yarder, a shot at a 59-yard attempt before halftime.
“With the fourth down, had the two options, take the shot for the end zone or try the 58-, 59-yard field goal,” Harbaugh said. “I liked them both and decided to throw the deep ball, max protection and throw that. Of course, I came in at halftime, ‘Man, we shoulda let him rip a long field goal.’ That also would have been the time to do that.”
Left guard Ben Bredeson is in on extra points and field goals. He praised Michigan’s special teams “across the board” and coaches Chris Partridge and Jay Harbaugh who handle the group.
“(They) do a great job of setting everything up,” Bredeson said. “Kickoffs, we’re consistently able to pin those guys behind the 20. Our punt coverage rarely misses a beat. It’s great to see that and I’m always impressed with the way our special teams come out.”
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Peoples-Jones, a sophomore, scored his second career punt for a touchdown last Saturday.
“That was a big play for the team,” Bredeson said. “Watching it on the sidelines, I thought he was going to be tackled at least four different times. (He) .somehow found a way to slip through there, turned on the jets at the end. Once he got that last guy in a foot race to the corner, I knew he was going to get in there.”
Receiver Nico Collins summed it up simply.
“It was Donovan being Donovan,” he said.
Defensive back Ben St-Juste is, according to Harbaugh, “unable to play this season," because of an injury.
Defensive lineman Luiji Vilain also is sidelined after recent surgery. Vilain was injured most of last season with a knee issue.
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“Luiji had a successful surgery a couple days ago and doctors feel like it went well,” Harbaugh said Tuesday on the Big Ten call. “Luiji is doing well and now it’s rehab and healing from here. His spirits are good and feel like he’ll be able to progress forward.”