Entering last season, Michigan went with a unique, sometimes puzzling, two-kicker approach on field goals, with Jake Moody and Quinn Nordin.
Moody got the bulk of kicks early in the season and was 6-of-9. Nordin, who had been 0-for-3, including misses from 55 and 58 yards, took over the job for good at Maryland and handled the kicking the final five games. Against Michigan State he made three field goals and five extra points. Nordin made his final 10 field-goal attempts, including a 57-yarder against Alabama in the Wolverines’ Citrus Bowl loss. But when preseason camp begins, whenever that might be, Michigan special teams coordinator Jay Harbaugh said no starting spot is a given.
“He played awesome, but this is a new season,” Harbaugh said, referring to Nordin, in an interview with reporters last week. “We're going to compete at every single position and those guys know that. The punters know that, the snappers know that. That's part of what's made our special teams culture what it is. There's no handouts and everyone's got to compete for everything and earn everything. That's part of the reason why we've ended up with the depth we have at each of those two spots (kicker and punter).”
Michigan also returns two experienced punters in Will Hart and Brad Robbins.
“I wouldn't trade any one of those guys,” Harbaugh said. “I think we have the best two kickers and the best two punters in the country. I'm thrilled about the way that room looks. If we were to change that now and change our approach, it would be kind of going against what got us here. We'll compete our butts off, and we know it will end up with us having a great guy that's ready to play at a high level and then a backup who’s ready to have his name called. If it ends up being somewhere in between for whatever reason, then that's a great thing, too.”
Harbaugh likes the options he has in the punt and kick return game. He will have to replace Donovan Peoples-Jones, who was the primary punt returner.
“It's a really strong group,” Harbaugh said. “I would say overall it might be the best that we've had in terms of depth. In the past we've kind of had older guys that we took it off their plates, or guys that were really young and needed experience. So we have a nice balance now.”
Sophomore Giles Jackson will be back for kickoffs. He returned 24 kicks last season for 622 yards, including taking the opening kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown at Maryland.
“We love Giles back there; I think everybody does,” Harbaugh said. “He's crazy fast, super talented, and he even left some yards out there last year that I think this year he's going to be able to take advantage of and will be able to continue to improve with the way that he understands our system, seeing the blocking scheme develop. Expecting a huge year from him.”
Receivers Ronnie Bell and Mike Sainristil, linebacker Mike Barrett, who returned two kicks last year for 43 yards, safety Daxton Hill and running back Chris Evans will compete to return kicks along with incoming two incoming freshmen, running back Blake Corum and cornerback Andre Seldon.
“We feel great about the quality of guys back there, which is really necessary,” Harbaugh said. “As soon as a returner becomes really a big-play threat, that's when you see all of a sudden that guy doesn't get the ball as much anymore. So it's important to have somebody else back there that is a legit big-play threat.”
Michigan is in new territory in punt returns now that Peoples-Jones has moved on to the NFL. Bell returned eight punts last season for 67 yards and Sainristil returned one, and Harbaugh said there are plenty of candidates.
“That's something Giles can do as well, which is exciting,” Harbaugh said. “Mike Barrett catches the ball extremely well. Blake Corum is a punt returner and Seldon. And that's not even including the (incoming freshmen) Roman Wilsons and A.J. Hennings of the world that are still, we're not sure yet. But those guys are electric. I'm confident that they'll at least be able to compete and push those guys. If they can get to the point where they can catch it with confidence, at some point in the year those guys could be legit dudes as well.”