Caden Kolesar, a senior defensive back on the Michigan football team, maintains that the fourth-ranked Wolverines spend more time working on special teams — whether it be in meetings or practices — than any program in the country.
“It’s a third of the game, so I think it’s only right that you do,” Kolesar, also a special teams stalwart, said on Aug. 30.
Saturday, that devotion paid off. In Michigan’s 59-0 demolition of UConn, two pivotal special teams plays helped the Wolverines put the game firmly out of reach.
Early in the second quarter, Kolesar burst through the right side of the offensive line and blocked a punt from UConn’s George Caratan. Junior linebacker Kalel Mullings scooped up the football and returned it 22 yards to the 18 yard line, setting up a touchdown three plays later.
Later in the quarter, Caratan unleashed a 48-yard boot that sent junior receiver A.J. Henning retreating to Michigan’s 39 yard line. Electing not to call for a fair catch, Henning eluded the immediate rush of UConn players and weaved all the way into the endzone, dodging traffic for a 61-yard touchdown.
“It’s very rare to get a block and a return for a touchdown,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said. “I can’t remember that happening too often, in any game I’ve ever watched. Just spectacular.”
Spectacular, but also not that surprising. In the same breath, Harbaugh mentioned that special teams coordinator Jay Harbaugh has placed an emphasis on punt returns, starting in fall camp.
And when Jay hones in on a particular area, production typically follows suit. Players have praised his ability to simplify intricate schemes, allowing everyone to pick up concepts and designs quickly.
“We try to be a really, really self-critical unit,” Jay said on Aug. 31. “We want to be a team that loves just the brutal facts, looking in the mirror after every single day and just confronting, ‘OK, this is exactly what we need to do better. This is what we’re not doing well enough.’ I think that really great players and great teams are like that. They crave that brutal honesty.”
So often, special teams are viewed through the lens of what the unit does not do: A missed field goal, a missed tackle on a punt return or a missed block on kickoff coverage. As kick and punt returns become less prevalent, special teams may lose some of their luster, at least in the public eye.
Not at Michigan.
“That’s where games are won and lost, on special teams,” junior running back Blake Corum said.
Added junior defensive lineman Kris Jenkins: “Our special teams are dominant. … That’s a big energy boost for the offense and the defense.”
Beyond attention to detail, the Wolverines’ special team unit also benefits from having a multitude of capable, talented players. While Henning has emerged as the primary punt returner, graduate receiver Ronnie Bell looms as an option, having returned punts before his season-ending injury last year. On kickoffs, junior receiver Roman Wilson solidified himself as the No. 1 option, but a number of players on the roster also have experience.
There’s a buy-in element at play, too. Not all players embrace special teams, but Michigan has been able to foster a culture that does, much in the same vein that its receivers take pride in blocking.
Even the players who do not play special teams recognize the value.
“It’s that third phase of the game that a lot of people forget about,” sophomore quarterback J.J. McCarthy said. “We take it extremely seriously here, and it shows on the field every single week.”
Against UConn, it certainly did.