Stats that matter in 2014: kicking game

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: Net yards per kickoff returns and punt returns.

2013 review: We’ll stick with the theme of special teams as we move along in our statistical look at what must improve for Michigan in 2014. On Monday, we dove into kickoff returns and on Tuesday we looked at punt returns. Now, we flip the script and look at Michigan’s punting and kicking game as well as how they do against return teams.

  • Punting

In 2013 Michigan averaged 40.8 yards per punt (67th nationally) on 62 punts. Like punt returns, this is a reflection of more than just special teams considering the offense stalled out enough to have to punt 62 times. However, the bright part was that the Wolverines allowed just 6.4 yards per punt return (40th nationally).

On average, this put Michigan opponents starting field position just over 69 yards from the goal line after the Wolverines punted. The ideal would be for every punt to either end up 99 yards from the goal line (or a touchback or fair catch would do, too). However, that was far from the case for the Wolverines in 2013 as opponents returned nearly half of Michigan’s punts (45.2 percent). There were only seven teams nationally that had higher percentages of their punts returned.

The Wolverines only recorded two touchbacks and 13 fair catches all season and 57 percent of the punts that were returned went at least five yards. None of those numbers put the Michigan special teams in the upper echelon of college football teams.

  • Kicking

Michigan averaged 59.2 yards per kickoff but registered a touchback on nearly half its kicks (48.1 percent). That percentage put the Wolverines at 25th best in the country. However, when the Wolverines did have to take down a returner, they struggled.

On average, opponents lined up 71.7 yards from the goal line following their return of a Michigan kick. Only 11 times all season (on 77 kicks) did opponents start inside their 25-yard line. Ohio State led the nation in that category, with their special teams pinning opponents inside their 25-yard line 49 times (on 108 kickoffs).

That means Michigan gave up 23.3 yards per return and on more than one-fifth of returns, the Wolverines gave up returns of 30-plus yards. That percentage of high returns (20.6 percent) puts Michigan in the bottom 25 of FBS teams in that regard.

2014 preview: Will Hagerup will be back for the 2014 season and is expected to battle Matt Wile and Kenny Allen for the starting spot at punter. Wile punted 61 times last season for the Wolverines while Allen punted just once. Wile also kicked off all 76 times for the Wolverines during the 2013 season so assuming he has continued to progress and no one else has come on too strong, he should be the starter.

Wile’s average of 40.6 yards per punt as a junior in 2013 wasn’t quite as impressive as Hagerup’s the previous season (45 yards per punt), but with Hagerup’s struggles in remaining eligible, this is certainly a position that the Wolverines would like to have some depth.

If each of those players can make improvements from last season (or in Hagerup’s case, the 2012-13 season) Michigan will be on the right track. But the place the Wolverines need make the biggest strides is in stopping opponents’ returners. Whether it’s more time in the weight room, better focus in film study or improving each individual's technique, the Wolverines need to show progress in this facet of the game in order to help their defense and give them the best chance to get off the field quickly.