Alex: We are back after the weekend and it’s officially game week! At the release of this article, the days between today and Michigan football’s season opener can finally be counted on one hand. Today’s main focus will be special teams, as well as some big picture questions (in place of superlatives), but first we have some important news to discuss. The team held scrimmage on Saturday and then had open practice on Sunday, the latter of which I was at. But before we talk about practice, the scrimmage brought casualties that need to be discussed. Rashan Gary was reportedly dinged up but it does not appear to be anything serious, so take a sigh of relief. However, unfortunately, WR Tarik Black suffered a foot injury and was taken off on a cart. The fear is that it could be broken, which could put him out 1-2 months. He had an MRI on Sunday, of which the results we do not know. At bare minimum, Michigan will be without Black for the first few weeks of the season, so Evan, on a scale of 1-10 how nervous are you about this injury?
Evan: I can’t contain my excitement for game week. I had my first fantasy football draft this weekend and I’m starting to get into the full Fall mindset. I’m sure you have some good insights from the open practice that I’d like to hear about, but let’s start with the injury news. First, I’ve heard similar things regarding Gary’s injury - it isn’t that serious and he should be fully available for the Notre Dame game. That is good news. On the other hand, the word around Black’s foot injury is… less positive. There are two ways to answer your question. The first (and in my opinion, more important) way to answer is from the perspective of the detriment to Black himself. If it is true that he broke his foot, then that means he has now broken both of his feet and, assuming he’s out through mid-October at least, he will have only played 2.5 games through a season and a half. I feel terrible for the guy, as he was just telling media how he “couldn’t wait to get back” on the field this season after missing the last 10 games of his freshman campaign. This is devastating timing for an injury like this. He might also never be the same player again if the foot injuries start weighing on him mentally. In terms of the effect on him personally, I am a 9-level of nervous. The second way to answer is from the perspective of the team. We covered the wide receivers in our offensive preview last week, and while talented, the position group is notably thin. Nico Collins will have to step up, and the pressure on DPJ will intensify. But I don’t think this is the end of the world. Shea Patterson still has the talent to fuel a competent aerial attack, and Black has no effect on the run game. It hurts, no doubt about it, but this can’t be any kind of excuse for the team. Next man up. For the team, I am probably only in the 4-5 nervous range. What are your thoughts?
Alex: I’m mostly in agreement here. I’d probably say a 4. The reason Black’s injury was killer last year was because the rest of the WR positional group was dependent on freshmen, who as we explained are unreliable. This year the rest of the WR positional group is dependent on sophomores, all of whom are expected to be significantly better. If they’re not, then that’s a coaching failure. Nico Collins reportedly had a monster camp and he’s a monster human being having seen him in person at open practice. The roster lists him at 6’5” and 218 lbs., which is very Funchess-like. If nothing else, Collins becomes one of the team’s top X-Factors after only having one catch a year ago. He was pretty raw out of high school, though he was basically in the same tier recruiting-wise as Black. Now it’s the time for him to step up. The good news for Michigan overall is that Jim Harbaugh's system is heavy on TE’s, not WR’s, to begin with, and the Wolverines are still loaded with those, and guys like Zach Gentry and Nick Eubanks are athletic enough to slide over to WR and line up outside if needed. Depth is a concern, but the front-line talent should be alright. It really does suck for Black personally, and it’s hard not to begin to draw comparisons between him and say, Drake Harris, or to make an NFL comparison, Charles Rogers.
On the topic of open practice, there are a few things I want to note. First off, despite reports that James Hudson had jumped over Juwann Bushell-Beatty in practice last week, JBB was still lining up with the ones. It seems decently probable that JBB starts in South Bend but by the end of September, Hudson has usurped him at RT. Rashan Gary was dressed up in pads today, which is a good sign that he’s ready to go and whatever injury he had Saturday was not serious. Shea Patterson throws a pretty ball, though we pretty much already knew that. It was good to see the guys out there, running around, but there isn’t too much to be learned overall. Shall we begin the special teams discussion?
Evan: I am excited to see Patterson throw live next Saturday night. That’s about what I expected with the offensive line. I don’t fall for the fake sources that certain members of the media whom I won’t name working for certain media outlets that I also won’t name cite when making guarantees about depth chart updates.
Anyways, let’s talk special teams. I want to begin this discussion with a note about the importance of special teams. Most people think it is a small part of the game, and it certainly is in terms of the number of snaps. But let me present to you: the 2010 San Diego Chargers. Coming off a 13-3 season, they were expected to be a Super Bowl contender. During the 2010-11 season, they had the 1st ranked offense AND defense in the NFL. Sounds like a contender to me right? Well, they went 9-7 and missed the playoffs. Why, you ask? Well, I’m sure you figured out that the answer was their 32nd ranked special teams unit. They allowed 5 blocked punts, 3 kickoff returns for touchdowns, and 1 punt return for a touchdown. Their own return game was not good either. Moral of the story, don’t undervalue the importance of the kicking units.
Now that I’ve bored you to death with my old-man wisdom, let’s get this discussion started. Quinn Nordin was electric against Florida, but as the year progressed, his confidence began to waiver. Given how mental kicking is, how can he regain that?
Alex: To address your first point, special teams is also really important to a team like Michigan given the playing style. If defense is your strength, field position becomes pretty important, and in close games, which Michigan should be in a handful of, you can’t afford to be shanking FG’s. As for Nordin, I’m pretty hopeful. He was the #1 kicker in the country coming out of HS and as a whole he had a very promising freshman season. He started the year 14/16 and perfect on XP’s and then had a stretch across 4 games where he went 0/3 on FG’s and missed two XP’s. However, the reason I think he will have a strong year is he did manage to close out strong, going 4/4 in the Outback Bowl, including a pair of 40+ yarders, a rare bright spot in the bowl game. If he can maintain or slightly improve the 80% clip on FG’s, with that big leg, and maybe space out the misses a bit more, that will be fine with me. However, the 3 XP misses are unacceptable. He’s got the physical tools, he just needs more consistency. I’m not worried about Nordin. The punting game on the other hand?…
Evan: Robbins was, rough, to put it nicely. I heard Will Hart was taking the first reps today. Did Robbins ever come out? Robbins has high talent as well, although not quite as high. He was the 16th ranked punter coming out of high school and Harbaugh raved about him. But man, that bowl game was rough. I was there at the game, so I don’t know what the exact numbers were and I refuse to look them up. But all I have to say is, yikes. He shanked some horrific punts. Michigan has had some studs booting the ball in the last decade. Zolton Mesko was awesome and made it to the NFL, and other than the horrific moment that he will always be remembered for, Blake O’Neill was incredible for the Wolverines. But Robbins and Hart did not meet that standard last year. I hope that one of them emerges, but I can’t say I’m confident. The only reassuring thing is they probably won’t be punting from their own 20 all the time this year.
Alex: Brad Robbins was not seen anywhere today. Chris Partridge said there is a three man battle for punter, with Will Hart obviously being one. Presumably Brad Robbins is another, and the third spot either being Jake Moody or George Cataran, a pair of walk-on kickers Michigan took. The latter two were likely brought in to handle the kickoff duties once held by the departed James Foug. The problem with the punting situation is that we can’t really say who it’s going to be and if said person will be good until we see them. It’s not a position that gets much buzz and rumors never really spill out of camp at all, so we’re largely going in blind into this weekend’s game. But whoever it is just needs to be able to kick it down the field and not the 25 yard shanks that Robbins had. Next up is punt returning. It seems like DPJ is going to be the returner, do you like that move?
Evan: Yeah, hopefully someone emerges. Otherwise Harbaugh might need to take a trip to Australia next Spring. I do like DPJ returning. I know he struggled with decision-making while returning punts last year, and he did a whole lot of nothing most of the time when he did catch the ball cleanly. But that touchdown against Air Force and the return to the 11 yard line against Ohio State give me hope. We are talking about the #9 overall recruit from the 2017 recruiting class. He obviously has talent and if you go back and watch his high school tape, he made guys look silly regularly. Now that he has played against B1G Ten defenders for a year, I expect him to be tougher both physically and mentally. He was my pick for breakout player on offense, and part of my thought process is that I expect him to be electric in the return game as well. I know most people are more pessimistic on his potential development, which boat are you in?
Alex: I’m very optimistic about Peoples-Jones. Last season he looked like a super athletic true freshman. He was raw and had big moments in both receiving and kick-returning, and most of it stemmed from him not having the technique down. With an offseason of work, hopefully he should know where to be, when to call fair catch, etc.. Once the ball was in his hands, however, the electrifying athleticism took over. If he nails down the technical aspects of punt returning, I don’t see why he can’t be a Jabrill Peppers 2.0, recovering those hidden yards on punt returns that the 2016 team got so many of. As for kick returning, there’s not a whole lot to talk about here. The NCAA changed the rule to essentially eradicate kickoffs without actually eradicating them. If you fair catch a kickoff anywhere within the 1-25 yard line, you get the ball at the 25. It’s hard to imagine why any team would bother even practicing kick returns at this point. With James Foug gone, one of those walk-on kickers will handle the duties and Michigan will still probably put Ambry Thomas back deep, but there’s not a lot to talk about here. Anything you want to mention?
Evan: Nothing besides that Michigan should just pop it up high and try to replicate what Foug did. The offense and defense will take over at the 25 every time. If Thomas ever does get a returnable one, I’d be excited to see what he does with it, but that should be rare. You mentioned earlier that we can’t really do superlatives because there are so few notable players, so I just want to throw in one more thing before we wrap up. The 2016 team was incredible at blocking field goals and punts. It would be great to see more of that, and I think we should based on the depth at linebacker and in the secondary. Those guys will be itching to make an impact in any way and the block units might just be their opportunity. Other than that, I’ll be patiently waiting for Saturday evening.
Alex: It will definitely be a great few days of anticipation in the lead up to Saturday. Before we go, I want to pose a big picture question for the season: is it Big Ten championship or bust in 2018?
Evan: Ugh. As many times as I’ve posed a similar question, I’ve grown to hate it. In one sense, yes. Harbaugh needs to silence the rivals by beating MSU and OSU and that would almost assuredly mean winning the conference. In another sense, well, that is a high bar to set for any team, especially one with the TOUGHEST SCHEDULE IN THE COUNTRY. I would say anything below 10 games is a major disappointment. Not winning the conference would hurt but not be a total disaster depending on how it happens. So to answer your question, kind of.
Alex: It’s a tough question, so that’s why I asked it. It is hard to hold any team to “Big Ten title or bust” standards when they play in the B1G East, especially one that is yet to break through. I feel like it will really depend on how the season plays out. If it’s mid-November and Michigan is 10-1 with the OSU game being for it all, then it is not at all unreasonable to hold that standard. If this team is what they could be, then that standard should absolutely apply. But right now it’s too early to tell, so I would go with “kind of” as well. Expectations ≠ definitions of success and so it’s important to make that distinction. The the bare minimum expectation of a season may not be the successful one and so we must be cognizant of that.
That concludes Part III of the preview series, and the final installation of the preview portion. At the end of the week we will do an in depth preview of the Notre Dame game and you can also watch out for episode 1 of WCBN Sports’s new Michigan football podcast, likely to drop in the mid-week as well.