As A.J. Henning bobbed and weaved his way 61 yards to the endzone Saturday against UConn, his vision became cloudy, everything a haze.
Returning a booming punt, the junior receiver looked like a seasoned veteran: Calm as he slipped past an initial rush of Huskies, lightning quick as he burst down the sideline, cunning as he cut inwards to avoid the punter’s last-ditch attempt at a tackle.
“I knew I was gonna score,” Henning said Tuesday.
The explosive play — the first punt return for a touchdown by a Michigan player since Donovan Peoples-Jones in 2018 — represented Henning’s growth in a nutshell.
Last September, Ronnie Bell’s season-ending ACL injury left the Wolverines without a punt returner. Henning, touted for his speed and agility, appeared the obvious heir. But in the immediate aftermath of Bell’s injury, the Michigan coaching staff eventually entrusted safety Caden Kolesar — arguably a more dependable, risk-averse option — with the role during the Wolverines’ Week Two matchup against Washington.
This season, Henning’s improvements are evident. It’s a transformation grounded in hard work.
“After last season, I really went back and looked at the film of each return that I had last year,” Henning said. “(I looked) at balls that I felt like I could have fielded that I didn’t, some balls that I felt like I fielded that I dropped. Just honing in on the little details — alignment, assignment, little keys, keeping your body square, keeping your elbows tight.”
Returning punts is an art. Along with physical attributes like speed and elusiveness, the position demands a rare blend of poise, patience and concentration. For much of his career, Henning lacked those three traits.
Henning began returning punts in high school, simply because of his speed. At times, though, the role felt like an oxymoron.
“A lot of teams would kick away from me,” he remembers.
So when Henning came to Michigan, his adjustment was twofold — not only acclimating to a “different level” of punters, but to actually having the ball kicked his way, too.
In 2020, Henning did not return a punt. Last season, after settling into the role, he returned 29, averaging 9.4 yards per return. This year, albeit in a small sample size, he is averaging 12.7 yards on his punt returns — the best of his young career.
Henning credits Brad Robbins — Michigan’s fifth-year punter — with easing the learning curve.
“Just talking with him about the different types of balls that I’m going to see, different types of ways the punter will hit it to see the way that it’ll spin off the foot,” Henning said. “I just really honed in on all those little details to get better. … It’s been great for my development.”
Kolesar — Michigan’s special teams stalwart — remembers having conversations with Henning after each of their punt returns last season. This year, he says, the difference is stark.
“He’s definitely way more comfortable back there,” Kolesar said. “You can see it on film and in the game. He’s natural with it in his hands.”
That comfort derives from repetition. Henning works consistently with Robbins and backup punter Tommy Doman. The pair boom punt after punt Henning’s way, varying the conditions — whether it be hangtime, angle, field position or time of day. Each rep is designed to simulate the array of in-game experiences Henning may have to confront.
At times, to the spectator’s eye, Henning’s decisions may appear suspect. So far this season, he seems reluctant to call for a fair catch; often, he has scooped up the ball on a bounce, even on a soaked field against Hawaii.
Henning, though, maintained that everything he does fits within the framework of the coaching staff. “Our rules are our rules,” he says.
That goes to say: Even if Henning’s play emits a different impression, he is actually under control. Returning punts is an art, and Henning is on his way to mastering the craft.
“It’s like an inner clock that you have as a returner in your head,” Henning said. “When you’re under the ball and you’re feeling that if it’s up there hanging for too long, it’s probably not returnable because guys are running down and you can feel the coverage leaning towards you. It’s a feel thing.”
It’s a feel that Henning lacked early last year. In the wake of Bell’s injury, an open competition emerged, with Harbaugh deeming Kolesar too important to other sections of special teams to be a full-time punt returner. In addition to Henning, a number of different players took reps as a return man, including DJ Turner, Donovan Edwards and Andrel Anthony.
Last season, after Michigan’s win over Northern Illinois in Week Three — Henning’s first game as the primary punt returner — Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh expressed optimism for Henning’s future.
“He could be really good at this,” Harbaugh said.
Nearly a year to the day, it’s clear he is. Just take Harbaugh’s word.
“From where he started last year, first time catching a punt to where he is now, it’s so good,” Harbaugh said Monday. “Every part of his game, he’s hungry, he wants to keep getting better and evolving. He’s really good.”