Michigan's All-Spring Game Team, 2009-Present: Special Teams & Takeaways
Quinn Nordin goes boom. Also, do strong Spring Game performances translate to the actual games? What does that mean for this year's team?
PREVIOUSLY, ON THE BUCKET PROBLEM:
This is part three of my effort to put together an All-Spring Game team and hopefully learn something from it. The offense was a mixed bag, though it’s hurt more than the defense by top players often sitting out.
The defense contains multiple All-Americans and several All-Big Ten standouts. It would be a strong unit overall.
Let’s run though the special teams before getting into detail on potential takeaways.
Kicker: Quinn Nordin (2017)
Punter: Kenny Allen (2013-16)
As the first half neared a close in the 2017 Spring Game, redshirt freshman Quinn Nordin — the former top-ranked kicker in the country — lined up for a 48-yard field goal. To say he hit it flush is an understatement. This is the moment before the ball tumbled down the net:
With Kenny Allen (more on him in a moment) ably handling kicking duties in 2016, this was the first we’d seen of Nordin, who’d built quite a bit more hype than the average kicker after his private jet video commitment to Penn State and subsequent flip to Michigan featuring the infamous Jim Harbaugh sleepover.
Nordin’s kick was arguably the moment of the 2017 Spring Game. We were collectively agog at MGoBlog:
Brian: People are radically underselling the Nordin kick.
Seth: That would have been just a double in Comerica Park.
Ace: Would’ve been good from 104 or so.
BiSB: "Restraint" is a very United Airlines way of describing "thank you for not typing while I chucked office furniture at you.” [Ed: Unrelated joke that has a relevant follow-up.]
Brian: I literally and truly believe that would have been good from 75.
Ace: The ball was reaccomodated.
Brian: With that tailwind, admittedly.
Seth: From 75 to Row 75.
I don’t remember another Spring Game field goal. Michigan sat their starting kicker and punter this year. Nordin was a dead lock.
Was it legit? In a way, yes. Nordin won the starting job in 2017, sported a “Wild Thing” haircut, and came out scorching enough that he finished 19-for-24 on FGs even after a late-season fade.
The rest of Nordin’s career was a rollercoaster. He was only 11-for-16 on FGs in 2018 and got outperformed by walk-on Jake Moody, missed his first three FGs and lost the job before regaining it and making his last ten attempts in 2019, then made only 2-of-5 FGs in the COVID-shortened 2020 season.
That all said: Nordin made the most 40+ yard field goals in school history (14) and tied for the most from 50 or longer (four), including a school record-tying 57-yarder. Despite the inconsistencies, his leg was never in doubt.
In down years, Michigan’s final spring scrimmage often turned into a punting exhibition, whether intentional or not. I might be forgetting a big performance or two. The one that stuck out to me was Kenny Allen in 2013; the redshirt freshman stood out despite the team having two experienced punters in Will Hagerup and Matt Wile. He continued to boom punts in Spring Games while waiting his turn and taking over placekicking duties in 2015.
Was it legit? Yes. When Allen finally took the punter job in 2016, he earned all-conference second-team as a punter — and honorable mention as a kicker, too. Allen got excellent distance and hang time on his kicks. Opponents averaged just 6.5 yards while returning only 21 of Allen’s 54 punts.
There’s not nearly enough data to do a section on return men. If the team bothers with kickoffs and punts at all in these games, it’s often as a drill or the returners are instructed to call for a fair catch. They’re not worth running at anything close to full speed in that setting because of the injury risk.
The Full Team
QB: Tate Forcier
RB: Dennis Norfleet, Mike Cox
WR: Ronnie Bell, Nate Schoenle, Roy Roundtree
TE: Tyrone Wheatley Jr.
OL*: Andrew Vastardis, Graham Glasgow, Mark Huyge
DT: Maurice Hurst, Will Campbell
DE: Chase Winovich, Taco Charlton
LB: Khaleke Hudson, Mike McCray, Jake Ryan
CB: Mike Sainristil, Keith Washington, Jourdan Lewis
S: Jordan Glasgow, Dymonte Thomas
K: Quinn Nordin
P: Kenny Allen
*Since OL is so hard to evaluate in spring, I took the three players I remember really standing out. Feel free to insert, say, Taylor Lewan and Mason Cole to fill it out. They both had good spring performances that were less heralded because they were expected, came against backups, were in the midst of otherwise sub-par OL showings, or some combination of the above.
There’s more value to this than I thought. I went into this series expecting to find that the Spring Game doesn’t hold much predictive value. I was incorrect. Michigan got at least starter-level play from most of the players on the list and a number of them became elite Big Ten players. The weakest area, the offensive skill groups, is the one hardest hit by players sitting out the game.
Sit-outs are tougher to overcome on offense. This makes a lot of sense — a defense doesn’t have a player as singularly important as a quarterback, for instance. Also, continuity matters the most on the offensive line, and rarely does the OL have five projected starters out there at once. Add in the fact that offensive schemes usually take longer to install than defensive schemes and you get the defense performing better and more consistently. (Most years, at least. Tate Forcier’s near-perfect 2009 Spring Game had an unfortunate flip side to the coin — that defense was bad.)
Defensive performances at the top end have been more reliable. I believe there are a few reasons for this phenomenon.
It seems to me that defensive play is more opponent-invariant than offensive performance. Regardless of the competition, certain athletic traits — strength at defensive tackle, bend at defensive end, fluidity at cornerback — are easy to see amongst the chaos.
Since there’s more rotation on defense and they have more of the playbook installed than the offense, what the defense shows in the spring is more representative of what we’ll see when the season arrives. The offense is also hiding a healthy portion of the playbook so opponents don’t get a free extra game to scout.
Michigan has been better on defense than offense for most of this time period. Seems worth noting.
Some offensive performances are so obviously due to matchups that they’re easily discounted. Few changed their opinion of backup receiver Jaron Dukes, for example, because he took advantage of Dennis Norfleet’s ill-fated tryout at cornerback in 2015.
My main takeaway from doing this is that the defense is more fully-formed by the end of the spring most years, especially in terms of what they show in the Spring Game itself. If a defensive player looks like a star at that point, there’s a good chance they’re at least going to develop into a starter.
Offensive standouts, on the other hand, have to be examined more closely to see why they excelled. The position group that seems most reliable, though is also hardest to scout, is offensive line — if a lineman looks good enough to jump out on first viewing and isn’t going against deep-bench backups, that’s a good sign.
For this year, we saw multiple standout defensive performances: linemen Kris Jenkins and Mike Morris and nickel Mike Sainristil, most notably. Michigan needs players to step up at those positions and those three appear very likely to play major roles.
Grad transfer center Olu Oluwatimi also leapt off the screen. While it’s not a huge stretch to expect excellence from a reigning Rimington Award finalist, the Spring Game added another data point in his favor.
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