Ask anyone about Michigan?s special teams and the response will be a positive one.
They?ll cite Ambry Thomas and Donovan Peoples-Jones? electrifying ability as returners. They might even mention Quinn Nordin?s big leg.
The rest of the Wolverines? specials teams, though, often slips under the radar. The unit ranked 3rd and 29th in 2016 and 2017, respectively, according to ESPN?s efficiency metric, and is back in the top 20 this year.
?We definitely have a lot more work to do,? said fifth year senior special teams specialist Joe Hewlett, ?but as of now, we?re playing up to a pretty high level.?
Hewlett says the unit has met the goals it set for itself in all four facets?kickoffs, kickoff returns, punts, and punt returns.
On kickoffs, those goals are to have an average drive start past the 30-yard line and to lower its average return yards allowed from a nation-best 15 last year.
Hewlett attributes Michigan reaching both goals to its aggressiveness under special teams coach Chris Partridge.
?Coach Partridge is really big on (aggressiveness) and we take that to heart,? Hewlett said. ?So we really just want to go out there, put pressure on teams, put our offense in good spots.?
Hewlett has especially had to buy into that mentality in order to carve out his role on a unit populated by more athletic teammates.
?You look at guys like Khaleke, Josh, Devin, I?m definitely not as big, fast, strong as those guys,? Hewlett said. ?I think it?s probably just being focused on being prepared and being in the right spots, knowing my job, knowing my schemes.?
The unit?s biggest difference maker, though, might be junior punter Will Hart.
Hart is averaging an incredible 52.1 yards per punt so far this season, up nearly 15 yards from his average last year.
?He knows if he puts one out there, we?re gonna go get it,? Hewlett said. ?And we trust that Will?s gonna put a good ball with a good hang time out there in the right spot.?
Added Coach Harbaugh: ?Will Hart continues to punt well.?
Hart?s improvement has made a significant difference for the Wolverines. Their punting game was one of few downfalls of an otherwise great special teams unit last year, as he and Brad Robbins both averaged less than 41 yards per punt.
?It?s amazing what he?s been able to do, being able to flip the field like he has,? Hewlett said. ?I can?t remember a punt this year that?s been less than 50 yards in the air.?
That, in turn, has translated into a radiant confidence.
When Hart connects with a punt, you can hear his emotion before you see it. When he returns to the Michigan sideline after those punts, he bounces around his teammates, acting as the defense?s hype man.
But he?s more than a hype man. He and the rest of the Wolverines? special teams unit may be flying under the radar, but they have put the defense in a position to succeed all season long.
?Going 85, 90 yards on our defense,? Hewlett said, ?it?s not gonna happen that often.?