Punt return strategy seems to emerge

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Jeremy Gallon sees the ball snapped, watches the punter go through his motion and immediately focuses on the ball.

This is what happens when the Michigan punt returner lines up to judge whether he’ll let the punt drop, return it or call for a fair catch.

“First I look at how the ball is kicked off a kicker’s foot,” Gallon said. “Read where it is going, take a peek down to see where there’s a lane and see where things are and see if I can set up a block for the punt return. Secure the ball and run.”

The last part -- running -- he hasn’t done much of this season. Michigan as a team has returned only four of the 22 punts that have been kicked to them. Of those four, Gallon has returned only two and those two have gone for a combined 4 yards.

Only five teams -- Air Force, Boston College, Clemson, Kansas and Oregon State -- have returned fewer than four punts this season. The Wolverines are averaging 6.25 yards per punt return, tied with Kent State for 82nd nationally. In the Big Ten, Michigan is last in number of returns and ninth in punt return average, ahead of only Purdue, Indiana and Saturday’s opponent, Illinois. The Illini are 114th in the country, averaging 2.09 yards a return.

While Michigan coach Brady Hoke hasn’t come out and said fair-catching the ball is part of his team’s strategy, the Wolverines have done a lot of it this season.

“I’d like them to catch them all,” Hoke said. “And judge them correctly.”

How he wants his returners to judge punts he leaves up to the returners themselves, which explains Gallon’s system to returning. When he makes the decision to fair catch, it is often because he sees something in the potential return he does not like, so he would rather make “good decisions with the ball,” something Hoke stresses to him and the other returners.

“If I feel like a defender is in my zone, like 5 yards, I’ll fair catch it,” Gallon said.

Better safe than either negative yards or a muffed return, both of which were issues for Michigan in prior seasons. Now, making a smart decision that yields better field position is key.

And Hoke is happy with where his team stands. He likes Gallon as his punt returner and said he is better at it than the three other guys working there -- junior receiver Drew Dileo and freshmen Amara Darboh and Dennis Norfleet.

“There are four guys back there we have a lot of faith in,” Hoke said. “But obviously, we think Jeremy is the best.”