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April 2, 2014

Norfleet closing in on career return records

At the pace that junior Dennis Norfleet has set in the last two seasons as Michigan's kickoff return specialist, it won't be very much longer until he sets the program career records in those categories.

Norfleet returned a total of 75 kickoffs for 1,765 yards in 2012 and 2013. With just seven more returns, he will break the all-time career record, set by Steve Breaston (81 total returns from 2003-06).

He also needs just 229 return yards to eclipse Breaston's career kickoff return yardage record (1,993 yards). With Norfleet's career kickoff return average of 23.5 yards per return (which ranks eighth in program history among returners who amassed at least 20 returns in their careers), Norfleet will own that record after just 10 more returns.

He currently ranks second in program history in both kickoff returns and yards.

"That's a good feeling, but I really didn't know I was second," Norfleet said, with a smile. "I didn't know about those records. It's just about putting us in great position on the field.

"It's a very big goal, but also, it's not about what I do and the numbers I put up. It's about the team, and doing what I can to put our team in good position, moving onto the next level."

Norfleet does have one statistical goal he would like to set for himself in 2014 - and it is one shared by countless Michigan fans, who have eagerly anticipated the moment when Norfleet finally breaks through the line.

He wants to score a touchdown.

There are only 13 instances in recorded Michigan history that a player has returned a kickoff for a touchdown, and just two of those have happened in the last 20 years: Darryl Stonum (vs. Notre Dame, 2009), Steve Breaston (vs. Minnesota, 2005), Seth Smith (vs. Wisconsin, 1994), Tyrone Wheatley (vs. Houston, 1992), Desmond Howard (vs. Michigan State, 1990 and vs. Boston College, 1991), Tony Boles (vs. Purdue, 1989), Gil Chapman (vs. Illinois, 1972), Dave Raimey (vs. Ohio State, 1961), Dennis Fitzgerald (vs. Michigan State, 1960), Chuck Ortmann (vs. Purdue, 1949), Tom Harmon (vs. Cal, 1940) and John Garrells (vs. Illinois, 1906).

"This year, it's time for one to come home," Norfleet said. "That is the big goal this year, to bring a couple back.

"Yeah, that is a big goal. It's kind of frustrating, but at the same time, it's something you just have to deal with. It's hard to return a kick - a lot of things have to happen. So, I am just looking to put the team in good position and get as many yards as possible."

Norfleet's longest return came early in last year's 63-47 win over Indiana, when he returned a kick from the end zone to the Michigan 44-yard line.

When the 5-7, 167 Detroit native first arrived in Ann Arbor, he was confident he would dominate as a kick returning after taking six to the house as a dynamic playmaker at Martin Luther King High School.

"There is a very big difference, though," he said. "At that level, you can just run past everybody. You can't do that up here. This is D-I. Everyone is great. You have to use your techniques and follow your blocks.

"Some guys like to come down and hit people. That's what they love to do, and you find that out, as a returner. Everyone is good at this level, so you just have to use technique."

The biggest thing he has learned after two years is the importance of patience.

"It's really hard to be patient back there," he said. "Being a better returnman is all about being patient. I found out it's all about being patient, waiting for the blocks to open up. Our guys are going to make their blocks, and then it is up to me to be patient and hit the right hole.

"There are guys coming down at you full speed. That is their job, and they're all great athletes, just like the ones we have on our side of the ball. It is really difficult to be patient when a guy is coming to try and take your head off you have to trust your teammates, and I trust the guys ahead of me to make their blocks, and I'm looking for the hole."

Norfleet is also competing to return punts next season.

He has fielded a total of five punts (10.4 yards per return) at Michigan, with mixed results. As a freshman, he racked up 42 yards on a punt return against Illinois. Last season, he had negative-one yards on three total returns.

"No one has a set position," Norfleet said. "Everyday is competition. You can't come out here and be satisfied with what you did last practice, because every spot is open. Everyone is here to compete."

He is also working at slot receiver, where he hopes to have a bigger role in the offense next year.

"It can happen," he said. "I am not really going to say that now, because you never know what is going to happen in the next few months. Right now, it's just playing my role and leading our younger guys in the right direction.

"My role is to be a good teammate. I am actually one of the older guys, who has played a lot - not as much on the offensive side, but as a returner. It is being able to keep the younger guys into it and make sure they keep their heads up when times get tough. My role is being a guy who is with the team and can uplift people.

Norfleet has six career catches for 46 yards (7.7 yards per catch), and six carries for 66 yards (11.0 yards per carry).

"I like the offense, under [new offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier]," Norfleet said. It's coming along. It is basically putting everyone in a position to score. That is his role. Now, we have to come together, do our jobs, and we will win and score. We're focused on doing the right things, and it will lead us in the right direction.

"Coach Nussmeier is a very open guy, a good coach. He's very different/ he is always hyper, and he has a lot of energy. I have never seen him come in when he is not happy and excited to be here. That is a big change. Things are going good."


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