May 7, 2012

Borton's Blog: Special attention

Amid the gaudily improved numbers on the defense and the bump in scoring, a few digits from Michigan's 2011 football season stand out like Herve Villechaize at an NBA reunion. It stands to reason they received more than a little attention in the spring, and will again when fall camp hits.

Three numbers stand out, all triple-digit rankings in the NCAA statistics. Two of them are connected. Michigan finished 108th in the nation (11th in the Big Ten) in average punting in 2011, sending the ball downfield 38.0 yards following failed drives. The Wolverines averaged 33.4 yards per boot in net punting, good for 12th in the Big Ten and 109th in the nation.

To be fair, you say, Michigan didn't start the year with its regular punter, having to thrust true freshman Matt Wile into the role for four games while veteran Will Hagerup sat out a suspension. Okay, except that Wile averaged 41.6 yards on 17 punts and Hagerup averaged 36.0 yards on 29 punts after he returned.

The mystery involves Hagerup booming them 50 yards and more every time you look up during practices, warm-ups for the spring game, etc. It just didn't happen in the games of 2011 with any consistency.

There's no question Hagerup, a junior, can punt, and get it done in games. He averaged 43.6 yards per punt as a true freshman, with a long of 72 yards. But after missing the Ohio State game that year due to suspension and skipping September the following season, it just wasn't there on Saturdays.

That certainly keeps the competition alive come August, although it would be open anyway. And Hagerup, as stated, has proven he can get the job done. For him to return to form in 2012 would add even more to a defense that jumped dramatically into competence-plus last season.

It wasn't just that Michigan's combination of offense/defense put the Wolverines in much better situations, either, calling for constant short punts. Hagerup buried just five inside the opponents' 20-yard-line last year, compared to 11 as a true freshman.

Michigan's other number of note - 117th in the nation in kickoff returns. The Wolverines averaged 18.4 per return, no better than 11th in the Big Ten.

Brady Hoke openly expressed his displeasure with that aspect of Michigan's game, and it will also draw plenty of attention once August signals the return of football. Given Hoke's never-satisfied stance, and a substandard performance in areas that directly affect field position, certain aspects of special teams will remain under the microscope.

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