ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- He was a last-minute decision, a quick-trigger addition to a class that looked mostly full. Yet running back Dennis Norfleet (Detroit/Martin Luther King) might be one of Michigan’s most important overall additions.
While Norfleet doesn’t fit the style of running back Michigan is attempting to recruit -- big, bruising backs with speed -- he does serve another key role. When the Wolverines dismissed Darryl Stonum for violations of team rules in January, Michigan was left with a big hole in the return game.
It is a role Norfleet could slip into almost immediately.
“He’s a pretty good returner,” tight ends/special teams coach Dan Ferrigno said. “I don’t know about right away, but he can play there. We’ll definitely give him a shot.”
The 5-foot-7, 170-pound Norfleet will fit into that role almost perfectly. With Michigan losing Stonum as well as Martavious Odoms, who was one of the better kick returners in school history, Norfleet can immediately come in and at least compete for the position.
Ferrigno said Michigan has worked multiple players into the kickoff return rotation in practice during the season to work on catching kickoffs -- including receivers Jeremy Gallon and Drew Dileo, running back Justice Hayes and cornerbacks Blake Countess and Raymon Taylor, along with giving Norfleet a shot.
“That will be part of the process this spring,” Ferrigno said.
Norfleet's return skills are part of what attracted Michigan coach Brady Hoke to him in the first place.
Hoke said on signing day the school first contacted Norfleet on Jan. 31 -- the night before signing day. Already committed to Cincinnati, Norfleet made a quick decision to stay closer to home and picked Michigan late on that Tuesday evening.
Then he signed his paperwork less than 24 hours later. Losing Stonum was a big part of offering Norfleet.
“This guy is a guy who returns kicks,” Hoke said. “He’s got speed. He’s a guy who can do a lot of things catching the football. He runs the football. He’s an athlete.
“We’re really impressed with him.”
Where he might struggle the most, actually, is at running back -- with Michigan’s changing emphasis and returning to more of a pro-style set instead of a spread offense which favored smaller backs like Vincent Smith or Norfleet.
“Very fast kid,” running backs coach Fred Jackson said. “When the offense switched over, there wasn’t numbers for a guy who was just going to be a scatback kind of guy. But then we got ourselves the numbers to get a kid that is out there who still has a great interest in Michigan.
“It gave us an opportunity to go and recruit him.”
With Smith graduating after next season, there was a need for a smaller, change-of-pace back with speed who can catch passes out of the backfield if the Wolverines had the numbers for that luxury.
They did, and now Norfleet is a Wolverine.