Stats that matter in 2014: Punt returns

The spring game is a preview for the season and with so many early enrollees this year, it really is going to give fans and the media a pretty good look at what next year could hold for the Wolverines. So leading up to the scrimmage, we’re going to look a few stats that really matter for next season for Michigan if the Wolverines want to make the Big Ten championship game.

Stat: Average distance from the goal line after punt returns.

2013 review: We looked at this quite in depth yesterday when examining the Wolverines’ kickoff returns of 2013. The general conclusion is that while a yard here and there on a kickoff return doesn’t seem like a lot, it really is, and the same is true with punt returns.

Michigan returned 18 punts last season at an average of 6.3 yards per punt return (89th nationally). Neither one of those numbers are very encouraging, however both are areas in which different facets of the team must improve in 2014. The number of punts is a reflection of the defense, which was up and down all season. Other Big Ten teams forced opponents to punt far more often (Michigan State: 36, Ohio State: 30, Wisconsin: 28). The return is a reflection of the special teams, which is the focus today.

The punt return is an opportunity to gain great field position. North Carolina led the nation with an average punt return of 18.1 yards. Iowa led the Big Ten in the same category with 14.0 yards per punt return. The national average was 8.7 yards, meaning the Wolverines were more than two yards behind the national average.

Only twice all season did Michigan break off a return of 20 or more yards (Utah, North Texas and Duke led the FBS with eight apiece). Now, Michigan played some pretty tough teams when it came to punt returns. Michigan State’s special teams gave up just 6.7 yards per punt return while Iowa gave up just 4.9 yards per punt return, so the Wolverines’ 6.3 yards per return doesn’t look too bad in either of those categories. However, punt returns are a part of the game in which Michigan could (and should) take a step forward in 2014.

2014 preview: Like kickoff returns, this will likely be Dennis Norfleet's job, though there should be an opening for anyone else who makes a name for themselves this spring or during fall camp. Jabrill Peppers would be an obvious candidate if the coaches allow him to play outside of the secondary considering his athleticism and nose for finding holes in defenses.

Norfleet is another year older and wiser, so in the perfect world he’d be harder to stop in 2014 than he was in 2013 (read: not hard to stop). There isn’t a concrete statistic that Michigan needs to hit in punt returns, but the 10 teams that played in BCS bowl games averaged 10.4 yards per return during the 2013-14 season. In that group there were outliers each way with Alabama and Oklahoma both averaging 14.2 yards per return while Stanford and Ohio State averaging 8.2 and 8.1 yards per return, respectively.

So in that general statistical look, the Wolverines would want to boost their yards per punt return by at least 2.5 yards per return in order to be in that same general range. Whether another year of experience can boost Norfleet’s production by nearly 40 percent will be tough to say until 2014. However, if he can make that kind of a jump it would be a huge help to Michigan’s field position.