As the start of Michigan’s 2014 season stands less than a week away, several Wolverines are trying to claw their way into the lineup. One returning starter, senior Matt Wile, is fighting tooth and nail at several different positions, but it hasn’t altered his mind frame as he approaches his last year in college.
“To be honest, it’s the same way I’ve come in every year,” said Wile. “I just planned on doing my job and doing it to the best of my ability. I have been coming into camp trying to be the full time placekicker, and now, I’m still just taking my kicks in practice and just looking ahead to the next kick.”
Last year, Wile’s job was a bit diverse. Michigan was lacking the presence of All-Big Ten punter Will Hagerup, who was suspended due to a violation of team rules, and needed someone to step up and secure the punting position is his absence.
Wile opportunistically rose to the occasion, taking 61 punts for an average of 40.59 yards last season. This year, however, Wile will not be relied upon as heavily with Hagerup available for punting duties.
“Right now I’m just competing in kickoffs, field goals and punts for all three right now,” said Wile. And as far as who the kickers will be, he says, “We will see—whatever coach Hoke says.”
Without another experienced placekicker on the team, it appears as if Wile is poised to receive the nod at that position. In 2013, Wile connected on three of his five field goal attempts with a season-long 49-yarder coming against Michigan State.
“I am going to do my best to make sure I have the job, but I don’t know whose job it is right now,” said Wile.
By competing for the starting spot at placekicker, punter and kickoff specialist, Wile has put the durability of his leg to the test this fall.
“How we kick during practice is, we have the kicking at different times during practice,” said Wile. “You have to keep your leg warm for all of that. If you get stiff, it’s very hard to get warm again; but you can’t kick the entire time. We start in the beginning then we have ten periods or so. I’ll take a couple kicks every period, and I’ll probably end the day with a total of 50 to 60 kicks total between field goals, punts and kickoffs. But I’d say I get the most punts, second field goals and third kickoffs just because punts are the easiest on my leg, then field goals, then kickoffs.”
As it stands right now, the rigor has taken its toll. Wile sat out Michigan’s practice on Friday, although it is not considered a serious injury.
“It’s just an older thing, but it was more that I just kick a lot,” said the 6-foot-2, 219-pound senior. “So they wanted me to rest this week for a couple days. [It’s] just tired. It’s just I have a little scab from kicking on the ball in the same spot every time. It’s like a healing scab.”
While he may be ailing at the moment, Wile, who also made the Academic All-Big Ten team last year, looks to be fresh for the season opener against Appalachian State.
A fresh leg may prove useful in locking down a starting spot at placekicker this fall. Sporting a career long 52-yard field goal achieved in 2012, Wile asserts that his range is a bit further than that marking.
“I’d say I feel comfortable from 55 in, for always being able to have the range for that,” said Wile. “58 to 59 [yards] is where the range can start to… sometimes I’ll have it and sometimes I won’t. The farthest I have ever hit in practice would be, not live full scrimmage, but by myself: I’ve hit 63, 64. But I’d say 58, 59 is probably the extent.”
In terms of his role as kickoff specialist, Wile has been responsible for taking kickoffs each of the last three seasons. He is battling redshirt sophomore Kenny Allen for that opportunity this year.
Wile’s touchbacks have increased each season, knocking 37 kickoffs into the end zone a year ago. For Wile, the goal is always to at least reach the end zone to make a touchback possible.
“That’s my expectation,” said Wile. “I am bummed when I don’t reach the end zone. But there’s always conditions—if I’m kicking into a 20 mile an hour wind, then I don’t really expect to maybe get it all the way into the end zone; but my expectation is to always put it in the end zone.”
With a starting spot at potentially three different positions on the line, Wile is making sure he puts his best foot forward. This all begins with his thought process before taking each kick.
“I’m just kind of making sure that when I get on the field I’ve got a clear mind,” said Wile. “Before every kick I usually just run a few things through my mind that I want to make sure I do well, because if I do those two or three things right, more likely than not I’m going to make the kick.
“For me, I usually say head down, one; two, lock my ankle; and I want to make sure I finish with my hips at the target.”
If those steps are in line, typically Wile can put a consistent, accurate swing on the ball. He has been using that three-step method often this fall, and has paid close attention to those mental instructions when kicking in front of the U-M coaching staff, namely tight end and special teams coach Dan Ferrigno.
“We don’t have a lot of reps in front of coaches,” said Wile. “When we are kicking in front of all the coaches we have to make sure we are on our A game, because one bad day can stand out. But yeah, I think all of us have been doing pretty well so far this camp.”
The mind frame of a successful placekicker is that of having confidence to deliver with the game hanging in the balance. These clutch moments are times when Wile wants the ball on his shoe.
“I usually just think of it as any other kick,” said Wile. “If I can make a 45 yard field goal when we’re up 56-0, why can’t I do it to win the game? I just look at it as any other kick: I’ve hit it before and I’ll hit it again.”
Wile will begin hitting them again this Saturday noon for Michigan’s home opener versus the Appalachian State Mountaineers.