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Preseason position grades: New-look special teams unit hoping to not miss a beat

There will be a different starter at each position in 2023.

Colorado State v Michigan Photo by Aaron J. Thornton/Getty Images

The Michigan Wolverines have been on an unbelievable ride over the past couple seasons with consecutive appearances in the College Football Playoffs. They absolutely would not have gotten there without the play of their special teams units.

Replacing Jake Moody, the best kicker in program history, isn’t going to be easy. The same can be said about punter Brad Robbins, who had a booming leg worthy of being drafted. This season will be one of change on special teams, as return man A.J. Henning also departed the program via the transfer portal.

A new face will have to emerge at every pivotal position on the special teams unit. While there’s still some experience left in the room, there is also viable cause for concern.

Special Teams - Grade: C+

  • Kicker: James Turner/Adam Samaha
  • Punter: Tommy Doman
  • Returner: Roman Wilson, Caden Kolesar, Kalel Mullings, Eamonn Dennis, Alex Orji

With Moody out the door, Michigan will have to account for 147 points from whoever starts at kicker. I don’t know if it’s possible for his replacement to attain the level of success he had on the field or the confidence Jim Harbaugh and the coaching staff had in him.

But 2020 Lou Groza Award semifinalist James Turner will likely be a solid replacement. In his last season at Louisville, Turner broke the program record for field goal percentage, hitting 90.9 percent of his kicks. Inside 40 yards, he nailed 17-of-17 attempts. However, he doesn’t have the same leg strength Michigan fans have been spoiled with the last couple years. In the last two seasons, Turner is 9-for-18 from beyond 40 yards and 0-for-3 from deeper than 50.

Let’s be honest, Turner also didn’t play in many meaningful games for the Cardinals over the last three seasons either. If a game comes down to a walk-off kick, will the Wolverines be able to put their trust in his foot? He missed a game-winning attempt from 49 yards against Virginia in 2021 as time expired. That was the only time in his career he has attempted a kick of that magnitude. At some point, the pressure is going to be on and he is going to have to deliver.

The other option is true freshman Adam Samaha. He has a bit more of a booming leg, converting on a school record 49-yarder in his senior season at Saline. Samaha replicated that success in the U.S. Army Bowl. He also hit 50 touchbacks on 56 kickoffs throughout his high school tenure, which is telling of his leg strength. If things aren’t in tip-top shape from Turner, expect Samaha to see a few attempts this season.

Confidence at punter should be much higher with Tommy Doman, who has experience both kicking and punting. As great as Robbins was, Doman could be even better.

“Tommy Doman as a punter, he’s a special talent,” Harbaugh said earlier this month. “We haven’t seen a leg like this since I’ve been here at Michigan. I think he’s in a great place right now and attacking everything.”

In 2022, Doman saw his first playing time as a redshirt freshman by appearing in four games. He converted two extra points, kicked off a few times and punted a 41-yarder against UConn that pinned the Huskies inside the 20-yard line. Optimism continued into the spring game when he domed a 54-yarder, downing it inside the 20-yard line again. Sounds like he could be the next great punter to put on the winged helmet.

While there are a lot of options at returner, it’s a little worrisome Roman Wilson is potentially the leading candidate. I love his speed and maneuverability with the ball in his hands, but I’d much rather see it on offense than special teams. Heck, we are just two years out from Michigan losing Ronnie Bell for the season on a punt return. Wilson has the chance to be the best receiver on the team this fall, so I’m not sure that’s worth the risk of sending him out there for punts and kicks.

Other options are Caden Kolesar, Kalel Mullings, Eamonn Dennis, and apparently backup quarterback Alex Orji. Kolesar has been a special teams star for the Wolverines over the past few years. He blocked a punt last season, has been on kickoff coverage in the past, and returned a few punts as well. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him out there at some point.

Dennis was the team-named most improved player on the special teams unit in 2022. Could that mean he takes over as the starting returner in 2023? His experience at both defensive back and wide receiver means he has plenty of athleticism. Maybe we see it on the field fielding kicks from deep.

The more odd options are Mullings and Orji. Both are massive human beings at 6-foot-2, 239 pounds and 6-foot-3, 236 pounds, respectively. Neither of those body frames are prototypical punt/kick returner-types, but both are freakish athletes. Mullings is entering his first full season as a running back, previously splitting time at linebacker.

Similarly, Orji has been known for being one of the most naturally gifted athletes on the roster. The redshirt freshman was just shouted out by Harbaugh who said they have “a secret plan” for.

“He’s got a chance to be maybe one of the greatest kick-returners of all time,” Harbaugh said. “Big 235-pound guy — he just started doing it, we’ll see how it goes.”

We all love a good dark horse candidate, so maybe we see Orji out there for a few returns early in the season just to see how it goes. Harbaugh has done plenty of unconventional things in Ann Arbor. However, I find it much more likely to believe some of the other options are better ones.