In 2016, Michigan had dynamic returners in Jabril Peppers and Jourdan Lewis. However, after that season all three of those options had to be replaced.
Enter Donovan Peoples-Jones. Last year the former five-star recruit led the Big Ten with 320 punt return yards and was fourth with 8.0 yards per return as a freshman, but his production was uneven.
Several people warned coaches against starting a young player at punt-returner. Peoples-Jones fumbled returns, he muffed punts, and ran up the wrong side of the field. There were even times mid-season when veteran receiver Grant Perry was sent to field punts in an effort to avoid mistakes all together. But there were also moments of pure genius.
The 2017 Wolverines were a young team all across the board, and Peoples-Jones was the best the team had at the time. They fielded a first-year snapper and first-year punter, so it wasn’t entirely a bad idea to add one more freshman on special teams.
There were some growing pains, and sure 2017 had ups and downs for Donovan, but by the end of the season he was much improved. And by the end of spring practices this year, he’s shown growth and confidence.
Special teams coordinator Chris Partridge told 247 Sports he has already seen a great deal of improvement from Donovan. “He’s just more comfortable,” Partridge said. “That’s a hard thing to do, and for a freshman it’s like you’re reading the nose of the ball, the wind’s factoring in. There’s a lot of things that go into that ... he’s now getting comfortable in that. I actually just told him today that he’s catching the ball better than he was at any time last year.”
After 15 spring practices, Partridge is feeling confident in his special team unit’s ability to move forward this season - and that will be critical if the Wolverines’ are to be successful. Donovan Peoples-Jones could become the star he showed hints of last season, now that he’s the experienced sophomore who better understands the intricacies of the return game.