Michigan Football WR AJ Henning on replacing Ronnie Bell

Michigan football wide receiver AJ Henning speaks to the media on Monday, September 6, 2021.

Michigan Athletics, Detroit Free Press

In September 1991, freshman running back Tyrone Wheatley took third place on the Michigan Football Depth Chart for punt returns, behind future Heisman Trophy winner Desmond Howard in second and wide receiver Derrick Alexander in 1 – a trio of future first-round picks.

Ranked # 2 in the Associated Press poll in early September, the Wolverines traveled to Massachusetts for their season opener against Boston College. The Eagles came into play as 25-point underdogs, but moved in with a field goal within one point at the start of the fourth quarter. At the next whistle, a member of the Boston College reporting team “grabbed Alexander’s left knee and knocked him to the ground” in a duel that, according to the Michigan Daily, tore his cruciate ligament.

For reasons he can’t remember, Wheatley, who had already returned kickoffs for the Wolverines, said the coaching staff asked him to replace Alexander on punt returns even though Howard was next on the depths table. The decision was soon reconsidered.

“I quickly found that I didn’t have the tools or skills to be a punt returner,” Wheatley said in an interview with the Free Press this week. “So I always tell Desmond, ‘If I had been a pretty good punt returner, brother, you wouldn’t have won the Heisman that year.’

“How did he seal the Heisman Trophy? What kind of game was that? A punt return. You want the ball in your playmaker’s hands. Does it increase the injury? Does it increase the risk? Yes. But football itself is always an improvement, isn’t it? “

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Lessons from this season 30 years ago are worth investigating after a season-end knee injury to standout receiver Ronnie Bell, who fell on a 31-yard punt return against Western Michigan on Saturday. Not only did the ’91 team use some of their most explosive athletes on specialty teams to score groundbreaking kickoff and punt returns, but coach Gary Moeller and his team doubled down by reaching out to Wheatley and Howard – two players who Teaming up to score 30 offensive touchdowns this season – even after losing Alexander for the year doing the same duties.

Harbaugh echoed that philosophy during his press conference on Monday, citing the names of Howard, Charles Woodson, Steve Breaston and Jabrill Peppers to demonstrate Michigan’s ancestry to use his most electrifying talents as returnees. “Great players influence the game from this position,” said Harbaugh before reiterating his point a few minutes later: “The best players play the positions. Thats how it works.”

And Wheatley agrees, “You do your best there. If that is your philosophy, this is your philosophy. I support Jim 1,000%. “

As mundane as it seems, there are numerous factors that coaches consider when applying this edict in games. Wheatley, who spent two seasons 2015-16 as Harbaugh’s running backs coach at Ann Arbor, is the head coach at Morgan State, a Football Championship subdivision school in Baltimore. He said he takes into account both the potential returnee’s health and the depth of the players’ positional groups before deciding who will line up the punts.

“If my running back was a guy and he comes back and comes back (kickoffs or punts) and he’s limping a little, I’m not going to take him back there,” Wheatley said. “Or if my running back depth isn’t as deep as I’d like it to be – maybe one of my guys is going down and the other one that’s in there is an OK back, but he’s not where I am need him – i’m not gonna take my best guy back there.

“But if everything is fair and everyone is healthy, the best thing to do is believe the guy who can get the ball to the end zone will be there again.”

A former Big Ten head coach told the Free Press that he likes to identify two types of returnees that are interchangeable depending on the situation. The first would be “the most dynamic guy you had out there” – someone who could change the game on the fly but needed special blocking schemes to reduce the number of hits it absorbed. The second would be far less dangerous, but could be counted on to play the ball clean, especially if the depth map suddenly flattened out or if a fair catch was required in difficult conditions.

Another factor he considered was the quality of his offense compared to national punt returns statistics. For example, the average punt return for Football Bowl Subdivision schools in 2019 – the last full-length season – was 8.4 yards per return. So for this particular season, the Big Ten coach would have weighed the likelihood of his offense covering those 8 yards against the possibility of his best returner getting injured.

“If you’re not really good on offense, you’d better put a (talented) guy back there for me because it can be a big game,” he said. “When I watched (Michigan in recent years), their offenses weren’t very dynamic. So I’m not blaming (Harbaugh) for bringing the kid back there. “

The potential rewards for unleashing an elite returnees are substantial. The five strongest return teams in 2019 – Alabama (24.14 yards), UCLA (22.5), Florida International (20.83), Texas Christian (19.94) – and Washington State (16.17) cut averages better than 16 yards per return.

There’s also a trend for big programs to use their best players in the return leg, much like Harbaugh did with Bell and Michigan has done for years. It can benefit the school and the player. Starting in 2015 – the year Harbaugh took over Ann Arbor – five players placed in the top 10 nationally in the average punt return yardage and were then selected in the first round of the NFL draft:

• 2019: Alabama’s Jaylen Waddle (24.4 yards per return).

• 2019: Jalen Reagor from TCU (20.8).

• 2018: Oklahoma Ceedee Lamb (12.8).

• 2016: USCs Adoree ‘Jackson (15.8).

• 2016: Michigan’s Jabrill Peppers (8/14).

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Without Bell, Michigan turned to junior defender Caden Kolesar for the remainder of Saturday’s game. Harbaugh mentioned Kolesar and wide receivers AJ Henning and Roman Wilson as potential long-term solutions. He even went so far as to describe the Kahn return job as the “ideal position” for Henning, if the runner-up feels comfortable enough in the role.

And if Henning’s 74-yard touchdown run against Western Michigan was any indication of his potential, it seems he’s going to have plenty of juice.

“Hidden mileage and hidden scores, right? That’s what you want and that’s what you’re looking for, ”Wheatley said. “I’m looking for a guy who can get the ball into the end zone, or that’s dangerous and scares someone.”

Contact Michael Cohen at mcohen@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @ Michael_Cohen13.