When AJ Henning bounced and scampered 61 yards to the endzone Saturday against UCans, vision blurred, everything in a fog.
Responding with a flurry of hits, the junior receiver looked like a seasoned veteran: calm as he slipped past the Huskies’ initial rush, lightning-quick as he burst down the sideline, crafty as he cut inside to avoid the Panther’s last-ditch tackle.
“I knew I was going to kill,” Henning said Tuesday.
The explosive play — the first punt for a touchdown by a Michigan player since Donovan Peoples-Jones in 2018 — epitomized Henning’s growth in a nutshell.
Ronnie Bell suffered a season-ending ACL injury last September and the Wolverines have not returned a punt. The heir apparent was Henning, touted for his speed and agility. But in the immediate aftermath of Bell’s injury, Michigan’s coaching staff eventually gave safety Kaden Kolesar — perhaps a more reliable, risk-averse option — a role during the Wolverines’ Week Two matchup against Washington.
Henning’s improvements this season are clear. It is a transformation based on hard work.
“After last season, I really went back and watched film of every running back that was last year,” Henning said. “(I was looking at) balls that I thought I could have hit and didn’t, some balls I thought I hit but missed. Just honing in on the little details – alignment, targeting, little keys, keeping my body square, keeping my elbows tight.”
Returning antlers is an art. Along with physical qualities such as speed and elusiveness, the position requires a rare combination of poise, patience and concentration. Henning has lacked those three traits for most of his career.
Henning started returning punts in high school simply because of his speed. However, at times this role seemed like an oxymoron.
“Many teams would have given up on me,” he recalls.
So when Henning came to Michigan, he got used to not only having a “different level” of players, but also to actually hitting the ball his way.
Henning did not return a punt in 2020. After settling into the role last season, he returned 29 for an average of 9.4 yards per return. This year, though in a small sample size, he is averaging 12.7 yards per punt return, the best of his young career.
Henning credits Michigan fifth-year Brad Robbins for easing the learning curve.
“Just talking to him about the different types of balls I’m going to see, the different types of ways the punter’s going to hit him, to see how he’s going to spin off his foot,” Henning said. “I just honed in on all those little details to get better. … It was great for my development.”
Kolesar — a Michigan special teams stalwart — remembers talking to Henning after each of their punt returns last season. This year, according to him, the difference is significant.
“He’s definitely much more comfortable there,” Kolesar said. “You can see it on film and in the game. He’s a natural with it in his hands.”
This comfort comes from repetition. Henning works consistently with Robbins and understudy Tommy Doman. Pair boom after punt by Henning, changing the conditions – whether it’s the delay time, the angle, the position of the field or the time of day. Each representation is designed to simulate the many gaming experiences that Henning might encounter.
Sometimes Henning’s decisions can seem suspicious to the eye of the beholder. So far this season, he doesn’t seem to want to call for a fair catch; often he would grab the ball on the rebound, even on a wet field against Hawaii.
Henning, however, maintained that everything he does is within the framework of the coaching staff. “Our rules are our rules,” he says.
This means: even if Henning’s game gives the impression otherwise, he is actually in control. Returning punts is an art, and Henning is well on his way to mastering it.
“It’s like an internal clock in your head, like a throwback,” Henning said. “When you’re under the ball and you feel like if it hangs there too long, it probably can’t be recovered because guys are running downfield and you feel the coverage tilt towards you. It’s a tangible thing.”
It feels like Henning was missing at the beginning of last year. With Bell’s injury, there was an open competition, and Harbaugh deemed Kolesar too important to the other special teams sections to be a permanent punt returner. In addition to Henning, a number of different players have stepped up as returnees, including DJ Turner, Donovan Edwards and Andrel Anthony.
Last season, after Michigan’s Week 3 win over Northern Illinois — Henning’s first game as the primary punt returner — Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh expressed optimism about Henning’s future.
“He can be very good at it,” Harbaugh said.
Almost a year later, it is clear that he is. Just take Harbaugh at his word.
“From where he started last year, catching a punt for the first time, to where he is now, it’s so good,” Harbaugh said Monday. “Every part of his game, he’s hungry, he wants to keep improving and developing. He’s really good.”