Michigan's coaches can take comfort in the return of All-Big Ten first-team punter Zoltan Mesko this fall. However, every other special teams' position, from a new kicker and long snapper, to below-average returnmen, must be addressed in 2009 ?
Chart: Special Teams
5th Sr. ? 6-5, 212
5th Sr. ? 6-5, 238
Soph. ? 5-9, 171
Soph. ? 5-9, 171
Jr.-R ? 6-1, 217
Jr.-R ? 6-1, 217
Soph. ? 5-9, 182
5th Sr. ? 6-0, 206
Overall: Thanks to the booming leg of Mesko and a roll-out scheme employed by Michigan's coaches, the Wolverines ranked second in the Big Ten and fifth nationally in net punting (40.1 yards per punt). However, the Maize and Blue ranked 64th nationally in punt returns (8.62-yard average) and 57th in kickoff returns (21.44-yard average) while their coverage units ranked 48th and 49th, respectively. U-M also only forced four touchbacks on 54 kickoffs while converting just 66.7 percent of its 15 field-goal opportunities.
This fall, Michigan returns Mesko, with its kickoff and punt returnmen also a year older and more experience. However, U-M must find a new placekicker following the departure of K.C. Lopata and a new longsnapper after Sean Griffin graduated.
"We're kind of nervous there [placekicker] because we don't have guys who have made kicks in games," head coach Rich Rodriguez said.
"Losing Sean was tough; we got spoiled by him," receivers coach Tony Dews added.
A pair of veteran kickers - fifth-year senior walk-on Jason Olesnavage and redshirt junior Bryan Wright - will compete with freshman Brendan Gibbons to take over for Lopata while redshirt sophomore Tom Pomarico and redshirt freshman George Morales will compete to replace Griffin.
Michigan's first all-conference first-team punter since Mike Gillette in 1988, Mesko led the Big Ten with a 42.95-yard punt average. He hit a single-season record 80 punts for a record 3,436 yards, showing off the consistently big leg he was recruited for. In fact, 25 of Mesko's 80 punts traveled 50 yards or more (31.3 percent) while he also managed to drop 24 inside the 20-yard line.
After starting slowly, averaging 37.7 yards against Utah, Mesko averaged better than 45.0 yards in four of the next five games. He did trail off towards the end of the season, however, averaging just 36.0 yards against Minnesota, 38.7 against Northwestern and 36.5 against Ohio State, though six of his 21 attempts during that span landed inside the 20-yard line.
This fall, Mesko will try to repeat as the conference's top punter in seeking to become Michigan's first first-team All-American at the position. He trails Monte Robbins' record-setting career average of 42.8 yards (from 1984-87) by just 0.8 and could equal or pass that feat with a stellar senior season.
Perhaps lost in Odoms' sensational freshman campaign at receiver is the work he did as a punt and kick returner. The 5-9, 171-pounder took over as U-M's punt returner late in the season and averaged 12.6 yards in five games, with a 73-yard touchdown return against Purdue. Among Wolverines with at least 20 returns in their career, only two have averaged more yards per return.
Odoms also handled kickoffs for Michigan from the fourth week and on. On 20 returns, he averaged 23.2 yards with gains of 32, 34, 36 and 45 yards.
Though he is not lightening fast, Odoms is quick and elusive, and with his relatively short stature is not always easy to find. He begins the fall No. 1 on the depth chart at both punt and kickoff returnman and should give Michigan a threat to go the distance every time he touches the football.
Morales was recruited to Michigan for one reason: to snap the football. A first-team all-region performer at center in his senior season at Mojave High School, he landed in Ann Arbor in time for the start of fall practices last season. However, Morales arrived extremely out of shape and was forced to redshirt.
Proving he is committed to making an impact at U-M, he devoured his workout program in the offseason and is noticeably trimmer. He spent the spring competing to start at long snapper with Pomarico and will begin camp this August still locked in that battle.
Like when Garrett Rivas arrived in 2003, Michigan is badly in need of a placekicker following the departure of Lopata. Olesnavage assumed the post in the spring and did well, but wasn't convincing enough to fend off talk that the job is Gibbons come Sept. 5. Wright has a history of injury problems and really won't be a factor.
In high school, Gibbons connected on 16 of 21 career attempts (76.2 percent). He converted seven field goals beyond 40 yards in his senior year and 10 of 12 overall. The Floridian native also earned touchbacks on 90 percent of his kickoffs during his career.
As long as he adjusts quickly to kicking off the ground - in high school, miniature tees are permitted - Gibbons will likely begin the season Michigan's placekicker.
Brewing Battle: Returnmen
There is no shortage of competitors vying to return kicks and punts for Michigan. In the spring, Odoms, senior Carlos Brown, junior Donovan Warren, senior Greg Mathews, sophomore Boubacar Cissoko, sophomore Darryl Stonum and redshirt freshman Terrence Robinson saw opportunities on special teams and the battle for the three coveted spots (two kickoff and one punt) will continue into the fall.