Led by Giles Jackson, Michigan excited about ‘electric’ 2020 kick returners
When considering Giles Jackson’s game-breaking speed, a few plays come to mind.
Sure, there’s the reverse handoff he took 22 yards for a touchdown against Ohio State. Or the 40-yard reception off a wheel route against Alabama in the Citrus Bowl. But when examining Jackson’s full body of work as a freshman last fall, one image stands out most.
On a sunny November afternoon in College Park, against Maryland, Jackson only needed one juke to take the opening kickoff to the house. As he trotted across the goal line for a 97-yard touchdown, 11 Terrapins helplessly lagged behind him.
Jackson’s tone-setting touchdown against Maryland paved the way for a 38-7 win while simultaneously showcasing his value in the grand scheme of things. Beyond his increased offensive responsibilities as the season progressed, the 5-foot-9 speedster averaged nearly 26 yards across 24 returns as Michigan’s primary option last season en route to an All-Big Ten honorable mention selection.
“Giles is a real ascending player,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said after the Citrus Bowl. “... He’s a true freshman, so I didn’t know exactly what you’re going to have in a true freshman, but he has really produced and had a heck of a year.”
What, exactly, did Michigan have in Jackson? Last fall, he became just the second player in program history to score a touchdown by rushing, receiving and kick returning in the same season. And he did it at 17 years old.
Heading into his sophomore season, Jackson is set to spearhead arguably the deepest group of special teams returners the Wolverines have carried in the Harbaugh era. And as special of a freshman season as Jackson might’ve had, the Wolverines’ running backs coach and special teams coordinator Jay Harbaugh still sees untapped potential in Jackson’s return game.
“(Jackson) is crazy fast, super talented,” Jay said in a teleconference Friday. “He even left some yards out there last year that I think this year he’s gonna be able to take advantage of as he continues to improve the way he understands our system, seeing the blocking scheme develop. Expecting a huge year from him.”
Behind Jackson, Harbaugh identified presumed VIPER Mike Barrett, receivers Ronnie Bell and Mike Sainristil, running back Blake Corum and cornerback Andre Seldon as others who could see action as kick returners. Barrett, in particular, has proven himself as a blocker in the role of off-returner, while safety Daxton Hill and running back Chris Evans have also seen time as returners.
“(Jackson) has a great group of guys who are going to be able to compete with him, make him better and be back there with him,” Jay said. “… We feel great about the quality of guys back there, which is really necessary because as soon as a returner becomes a big-play threat, that’s when you see that guy doesn’t get the ball that much anymore, so it’s important to have someone else back there that is a legit big-play threat.”
As for returning punts, Michigan will be forced to adjust to life without Donovan Peoples-Jones, who left for the NFL during the winter following his junior campaign. In his three seasons returning punts, he racked up 743 yards across 89 attempts and scored a pair of touchdowns.
With Peoples-Jones now gone, the Wolverines could hand the keys to Bell, who returned eight punts last season. Michigan could also turn to Jackson or Barrett, while Harbaugh also touted the “electric” potential of incoming freshman receivers Roman Wilson and AJ Henning.
“I’m confident (Wilson and Henning) will at least be able to compete and push those guys,” Jay said. “If they can get to the point where they can catch it with confidence at some point during the year, they could be legit dudes as well.”
Regardless of which direction the Wolverines go, there’s no shortage of viable options within the group. And in the event multiple candidates prove themselves, it wouldn’t be surprising to see a plateau system.
But for now, it seems pretty like one option stands above the rest.
“We love Giles back there,” Jay said. “I think everybody does.”