With the season-opener looming on Saturday, there are only a few lingering questions that can be answered before the Michigan football team takes the field.
From special teams to the linebackers room, The Daily breaks down what’s left to know heading into game one.
Ronnie Bell returning to punt returning
Ronnie Bell is back, that’s no secret. The Wolverines’ star-studded receiver is coming back from a gruesome knee injury that ended his season before last year’s opener against Western Michigan even came to a close.
While the fifth-year is set to make a difference as Michigan’s No. 1 receiver, adding a dynamic threat to an offense that should only improve from last season, he doesn’t want to stop there. In addition to resuming his receiving duties, Bell is also planning to return punts.
“I’ve always been a punt returner, and I feel that I’m comfortable being a punt returner,” Bell said last week. “I feel like I’m good at being a punt returner, so that’s something I want to do.”
Bell’s injury came during a punt return, inciting debate over whether players of his caliber should be returning punts at all. To Bell, that doesn’t matter.
For special teams coordinator and safeties coach Jay Harbaugh, losing Bell last year was a heavy blow. Giving him the green light to return punts once more will only help Harbaugh’s squad.
“(Ronnie’s injury) was major for us,” Harbaugh said. “He’s so good at catching punts, super reliable, very comfortable back there, has some experience doing it, great decision maker, very savvy, and we kind of had a little bit of a hole in the roster where we have talented guys but they didn’t have game experience. … So that had a big, very big, impact on us as well.”
Bell and the staff are all confident in his ability to resume returning punts, so try to avoid the nail-biting when he assumes a deep position on fourth down.
Roman Wilson quickest to front of a crowded room
Another returner has claimed their position, this time for kickoffs.
Junior Roman Wilson has staked his claim as the starting kick returner in a room described as “crowded” by Jay. Still, Wilson has buoyed his way to the top.
“Roman, he’s just tremendous,” Harbaugh said. “Like his focus in this camp has been on another level. He was a good player for us last year, a guy who we really loved and he’s managed to even take it up a notch.”
How exactly has Wilson managed to find himself in this position? It’s pretty simple: speed.
“Roman’s really fast,” senior Mike Sainristil said last week.
With the ample space on kickoffs allowing him to shift into top gear, Wilson’s ability to cover ground will be a dangerous threat to opponents. Not only that, but he’s confident. When asked about who the fastest player on the team is, Wilson had a quick answer:
“I’m gonna say it’s me all day.”
Back to linebackers
One of the position groups with the most amount of questions heading into the season is the linebackers. Who will be filling what roles come gameday — and whether they will succeed in those positions — is still somewhat unknown.
There’s slack to be picked up in the pass rush game after the losses of Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo. Not to mention, finding a run stopper like the departed Josh Ross is no easy task.
So, who’s it going to be?
“We’ve had some guys step up (in Josh Ross’s absence),” linebackers coach George Helow said Wednesday. “Junior (Colson), Mike Barrett, we had mentioned had a good camp, Kalel Mullings, Nikhai Hill-Green. We’re cross training people to know all the spots.”
There’s a bit of coachspeak in there for “no one is highly excelling anywhere, so everyone needs to be ready to play everywhere,” but Michigan believes this could play to its advantage.
A well-rounded linebacker core could prepare the Wolverines in case of injury or mix up packages mid-game, but what they need — no matter what — is a leader.
“(Colson is) good (at being vocal),” Helow said of the sophomore linebacker. “He’s comfortable with all the closing of the front rules and setting the front. And every day I feel like he’s continuing to get better and more confident.”
Come gameday, the linebackers will be put to their first test, and it should become slightly clearer how the group is shaping up.