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Breaking down Michigan’s punt returner candidates for 2023

With A.J. Henning entering the transfer portal, someone new will have the opportunity to step into the role.

NCAA Football: Connecticut at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Senior wide receiver/punt and kick returner A.J. Henning has entered the transfer portal. His loss as a receiver will not be felt; Henning only registered nine catches for 67 yards last season and has fewer career receptions, yards, and receiving touchdowns than former Michigan fullback Khalid Hill.

However, Henning’s absence will be felt as a returner, especially as a punt returner.

Since Jim Harbaugh took over in 2015, the Michigan Wolverines have been known for explosive and reliable punt returners. Jabrill Peppers did the honors for the first two seasons before Donovan Peoples-Jones took over the reins from 2017 to 2019. Giles Jackson filled in during the 2020 season and it has been AJ Henning solidifying the position for the past two years.

Henning averaged 8.3 yards per return during his time as the starter and even returned one for a touchdown last season against UConn. But with Henning in the portal, who is the next punt returner in this lineage of reliability and explosiveness?

Here are a few names to keep an eye on.

Spring Game Candidates

WR Semaj Morgan

The true freshman was electric with the ball in his hands in high school and was the primary punt returner for the blue team in the 2023 spring game. Morgan’s inexperience is worrisome, but Harbaugh has turned to youthful options in the past — Peoples-Jones was returning punts as a true freshman in 2017.

WR Jake Thaw

Thaw was the primary returner for the maize team in the spring game and is one of the few players on the roster with a live punt return in a game (kind of). Last season against Hawaii, Thaw returned a punt 20 yards, but had the play called back due to a holding.

For those unfamiliar with his style, the senior flashed his explosiveness on a five-yard out-route touchdown in the spring game.

Veteran Candidates

WR Roman Wilson

Roman Wilson is arguably the fastest player on the team and has experience as a kick returner. After Henning, Wilson was second on the team last season with five kick returns, and even led the team with a 22.8 kick-return average. However, Harbaugh may be hesitant to place Wilson back there given Michigan’s lack of receiver depth and the memory of Ronnie Bell’s 2021 injury still fresh in his mind.

DB Caden Kolesar

Speaking of Bell’s injury, do you remember who replaced Ronnie when he went down? Caden Kolesar, well briefly. Kolesar stepped in for the injured Bell, struggled in the moment, and was soon replaced by Henning. But the fact remains, with three career punt returns, Kolesar is the most experienced punt returner on the roster.

Has Kolesar matured into a contributor since 2021? It would be a stretch for Harbaugh place Kolesar back there after his season-ending knee surgery in 2022, but he does remain an option.

Underclassmen Candidates

DB Zeke Berry

Berry showed dynamic playmaking ability as a returner in high school and consistently displayed excellent vision and burst. With a redshirt season under his belt, Berry should have enough practice reps to make the coaching staff feel comfortable with him back there, and he offers less depth chart injury risk than someone like Wilson.

RB Cole Cabana

The quickly forgotten Cabana could re-emerge and excel in this role. Freshman running back Cole Cabana was banged up and missed the spring game, which opened the door for fellow freshman Benjamin Hall to steal the spotlight. But given Cabana’s speed and game-breaking abilities, he could become a dark horse candidate to replace Henning as he carves out his path in Ann Arbor.