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Jay Harbaugh, Michigan redefining kick returning norms in college football

While most punt and kick returners tend to be small and fast, Michigan has gone with Kalel Mullings and Alex Orji to return kicks.

NCAA Football: Fiesta Bowl-Texas Christian at Michigan Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Speed kills. Historically, at least.

When football fans think of a special teams returner, a smaller guy with blazing speed usually pops into their head. Think Desmond Howard (5-foot-10), Jabrill Peppers (5-foot-11), and even A.J. Henning (5-foot-10). This year, however, special teams coach, Jay Harbaugh, is going with a different blueprint to return kicks for the Michigan Wolverines.

Kalel Mullings is a converted linebacker who is playing full-time running back this season for Michigan. He is listed at 6-foot-2 and 240 pounds, a bull rusher who gets put in during short-yard situations and any time the team is in need of a powerful back.

“Kalel is really, really good,” running backs coach Mike Hart said. “He just has Donovan and Blake ahead of him right now — two draft picks — but he’s fast, he’s big, he’s quick, he can catch it as well. Just really, really happy to have him full-time. I look at him like he’s really a freshman or sophomore based on him being a running back. He’s a senior as a running back, but he’s really a freshman, and he’s just super athletic. The runs he had in the game were phenomenal, so I really, really trust him. He’s great on third down, can pass protect, and he does bring that different dynamic of he’s 240 pounds. So it’s good to have him and we’re gonna get him as many touches as we can based on how the game is going.”

In terms of special teams, Mullings has contributed for his entire Michigan career. The only difference this season is instead of being a blocker, he is the one returning the kicks.

“It is exciting having a bigger body,” special teams coach Jay Harbaugh said. “A lot of times, in the special teams world, you got guys playing defense that maybe aren’t defensive players, (they can be) offensive guys, so more tackles are missed by offensive players on special teams than on defense, which is probably to be assumed, right? That’s not their day job. So I think having a bigger body is exciting. Maybe not quite as fast as having a true speed guy, but definitely gives you an exciting component of physicality at play.”

Alex Orji is an even more fascinating scenario. The 6-foot-3, 236-pound quarterback is definitely breaking barriers getting reps with the special teams unit. While most teams want to protect their quarterbacks from hits, Harbaugh wants to utilize the sophomore’s raw athleticism, size and speed, even if he can’t get on the field just yet as the quarterback.

“With Orji, it’s not even just kick returner, it’s really whenever he has the ball,” Mullings said. “He’s made so many plays where it’s like, ‘Wow,’ you are just stunned watching him. It’s just exciting to see what he can do in that role. And with kick return, there’s so much open space, that big guy like him, being able to just have that freedom in that role, it’s exciting. You guys are all gonna see it because every day in practice, it’s insane.”

Harbaugh added: “(Orji is) huge, right? That’s pretty exciting. It’s kind of an ongoing competition. I really like Kalel, Orji is exciting. We’d like to get Roman Wilson back there at some point. Again, if we can get a little bit of a competition.”

Against ECU, Michigan did not get a chance to return any kicks. Nonetheless, the idea is there that if the Wolverines go big during kickoffs, it has the chance to create missed tackles, longer gains and more momentum.