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That Team Up North: Are special teams a problem for the Wolverines heading into the 2023 season?

Seriously... TTUN lost All-Big Ten talents at both kicker and punter, as well as their top return man from the last two seasons. Will these losses come back to haunt, preferably against the Buckeyes?

Kirthmon F. Dozier / USA TODAY NETWORK

From now until preseason camp starts in August, Land-Grant Holy Land will be writing articles around a different theme every week. This week is all about Ohio State’s rival. We are talking all things TTUN. You can catch up on all of the Theme Week content here and all of our ”That Team Up North” articles here.

Is this piece really about special teams? Yes, yes, it is. Because you’re just not getting a whole lot from me when it comes to TTUN. I could have written their 2023 season preview, but frankly, I have/had no interest. I could have highlighted the Wolverines’ best players, but I prefer not to give any of those guys credit. I could have even focused on The Game, but... Damn, that’s actually great content. I probably should have done that. Oh well, hindsight and all that jazz. Let’s talk about punts and field goals!

In all seriousness, TTUN boasted arguably the best-kicking duo in college football during each of the last two seasons. Kicker Jake Moody won the Lou Groza Award in 2021 and was named a finalist in 2022, while punter Brad Robbins grew a fantastic mustache and made a habit of pinning opponents deep inside their own territory. That may have been the result of both specialists perfecting their craft(s) for a decade in Ann Arbor, but more power to ‘em. Moody and Robbins also became just the second kicker/punter (teammate) tandem taken in the same NFL Draft in the modern era.

Sam Greene/The Enquirer / USA TODAY NETWORK

Now TTUN will look to fill the all-important shoes of both Moody and Robbins, as well as those of last season’s leading return man, A.J. Henning. The latter returned a total of 57 punts in 2021 and 2022, which is 46 more than the rest of his teammates combined. Henning also returned nearly two dozen kickoffs before transferring elsewhere. However, since the NCAA is doing its best to eliminate returns – and most physical contact in general – replacing those reps is not nearly as important.

But special teams, as a component or phase of the game, are (important)! Just ask Jim Tressel and/or Urban Meyer. And no, I did not mistakenly omit Ryan Day. Moving on...

That is why I find the Wolverines’ situation interesting. Because special teams matter. Maybe not all the time. But like, in a CFP semifinal game, for example. Then they definitely matter. And I understand that specialists either move on or get replaced all the time, but it is far less common for a title-contending team to be tasked with replacing an all-conference kicking battery and its only (truly) experienced returner in one fell swoop. I think. Or maybe it’s not uncommon at all. Look, I don’t spend a lot of time breaking down ST units. But even I know that TTUN had a great one during each of the last two seasons. Now both of their former kicking specialists are cashing NFL checks, and Henning is in Evanston (playing for Northwestern).

To address their (place)kicking situation, the Wolverines turned to the transfer portal and brought in James Turner, formerly of Louisville. Turner does not have the same howitzer leg as Moody (1/6 in his career from 50+ yards), but he was incredibly accurate in 2022. The former Cardinal went 20/22, including a perfect 17/17 from short range (under 40 yards). Turner is also a Michigan native, so returning home appears to be a win-win for both he and TTUN. Consider the kicking box checked, although Moody will be sorely missed up north.

At punter, Jim Harbaugh and his staff will likely depend on the versatile leg of Tommy Doman. The latter was the No. 2 punter in the 2021 recruiting class, ranked just ahead of three dozen Australians. He also has kicking experience, including two made extra points for the Wolverines last season, but is primarily viewed as the successor to Robbins. Replacing the mustachioed Michigan man is easier said than done. Robbins was consistent with his hang time and surgical with his ball placement. His ability to pin opponents deep was a real weapon for TTUN. Doman will hope to match his predecessor’s precision.

Last but certainly not least is the matter and/or replacement of the Wolverines’ return specialist. Henning will never be confused with Devin Hester, but he did score on both a kickoff and punt return during his career in Ann Arbor. He also rushed for 162 yards and 2 TD (on 9 carries) in 2021 but saw his role drastically reduced in 2022. Hence the transfer to Northwestern. TTUN will have plenty of options to replace Henning, but my money is on Roman Wilson, thanks to his sub-4.4 speed and previous (albeit limited) experience returning kickoffs. Fielding punts is something entirely different and unique, but I assume Wilson could figure that out as well. If Harbaugh and Co. would rather keep their experienced wide receiver out of harm's way, then keep an eye on freshman WR Semaj Morgan. 247Sports compared the newcomer to Brandin Cooks as a high school recruit, so he likely has some juice.

There ya have it, folks. That’s a special team's breakdown of a bitter rival if I’ve ever seen one! TTUN has some work to do, but Turner was a solid addition, and last year provided even more evidence that ol’ Harbaugh finally has some speed up north. Do not be surprised if the Wolverines boast one of the Big Ten’s best ST units again in 2023... And if you’re a Buckeye fan, take solace in the fact that it is far from guaranteed.