Position review: Wide receivers
With the Michigan football team’s 2018 regular season in the books, The Daily looks back at the performance of each unit this year and peers ahead to the future in 2019. In this edition: wide receivers.
Amid a disappointing 8-5 season in 2017 that was marred by inconsistent play from the quarterback position, Grant Perry led all Michigan wide receivers with 307 receiving yards. Improvement, of course, was the minimum expectation. But with the addition of junior quarterback Shea Patterson from Ole Miss, hopes for the Wolverines’ talented pass catchers lay much higher.
Instead, despite a scattering of impressive performances, those hopes were marred by a lack of consistency and opportunity. Sophomores Nico Collins and Donovan People-Jones paced the group with 632 and 612 yards, respectively — ranking 151st and 161st nationally — making it five consecutive seasons without a 1,000-yard receiver for Michigan.
Behind them, the Wolverines’ struggles at the position only worsened. Sophomore Tarik Black missed most of the season with a broken foot for the second consecutive year. In his stead, Perry placed third among Michigan’s receivers with 147 yards — just ahead of freshman Ronnie Bell and sophomore Oliver Martin.
HIGH POINT: With the Wolverines embattled in a defensive struggle against Michigan State, Patterson dropped into the pocket, stared down his favorite target and let fly. Seconds later and 79 yards away, Peoples-Jones strolled into the end zone untouched.
It was the type of career-defining moment Peoples-Jones envisioned when he committed to Michigan two years ago as the top wide receiver recruit in the country, catapulting the Wolverines to their seventh consecutive win and first on the road over a ranked opponent since 2006.
Michigan’s receivers as a whole, peaked — not coincidentally — when the team as a whole did, amid its midseason push for a College Football Playoff spot.
A week later, in a 42-7 win over Penn State, Peoples-Jones and Collins shone again. Collins — a four-star recruit in the same year as Peoples-Jones — highlighted the performance with a 47-yard grab, and Peoples-Jones again caught the key touchdown pass, dragging his feet along the side of the end zone to put Michigan up 14 midway through the second quarter.
Against Rutgers the following week, it was Collins who caught two touchdowns, including a trademark jump ball over cornerback Avery Young in the corner of the end zone. That ability to make contested catches quickly became Collins’ most reliable attribute, as he finished with six touchdowns on the season, including two against Ohio State.
“The biggest thing is the way (the receivers) catch the ball," said Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh after the Rutgers game. "All the pass receivers, still the amount of drops is really so low right now for the year. The way they’re catching the ball is really good. Also, the separation they’ve gotten in the passing game. The precision in how they run the routes has been really good. The third thing I would point out is their blocking.”
LOW POINT: Peoples-Jones and Collins stood along the Michigan sideline, watching from afar as the Wolverines’ offense struggled more than its bevy of talent should have allowed for.
This is not a description of any specific moment. Rather, it’s a repeated scene that became emblematic of Michigan’s ultimately disappointing season. For each highlight-reel catch from its top receiving duo came a slew of drives in which the targets went elsewhere, the offense stagnated and the Wolverines fell short of their lofty potential.
In that same win over Michigan State, Michigan’s top duo combined for just 16 yards in the nearly three quarters before Peoples-Jones’ touchdown, as Perry and tight ends Nick Eubanks and Sean McKeon finished second, third and fourth, respectively, in receiving yards.
In the Wolverines’ season-defining loss to Ohio State, it took 16 pass attempts before Patterson completed a pass to Collins. By the time he grabbed a second reception, the Buckeyes led 41-19.
Meanwhile, Black — another highly-touted signing from the 2017 recruiting class — managed just four catches for 35 yards after returning from injury. He was the class’ most productive receiver early in his freshman season, racking up 149 yards in his three games at Michigan before his first broken foot sidelined him for the rest of that season. Since then, he has only seen sporadic usage, despite being declared fully healthy in early November.
The trio’s success when on the field led to calls for more three-receiver sets, but the Wolverines instead opted to rely on their tight ends and running game. When they were used together, the results often followed, such as in a 71-yard first-quarter drive in the Peach Bowl, during which the three combined for 61 yards and a touchdown.
Unfortunately for Michigan, that seldom happened. Instead, the receiving corps’ success was sporadic, capping Patterson’s ceiling in his first season with the Wolverines.
THE FUTURE: The future, as with the present, lies in the hands of Peoples-Jones, Collins and, to a lesser extent, Black.
Just two years ago, those three — along with Martin — comprised one of the most impressive receiver hauls in recent memory. But through two seasons, they have managed just 1,857 combined yards.
On Jan. 10, though, the group’s outlook took a sharp turn for the better when Michigan hired offensive coordinator Josh Gattis from Alabama, where he was the co-offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach. Gattis helped coach a potent Crimson Tide passing attack that averaged 320.2 yards per game. Four of Alabama’s receivers finished with at least 693 yards — more than any Wolverine pass catcher — including Jerry Jeudy, who won the Biletnikoff Award for the nation’s best receiver with 1,315 yards and 14 touchdowns.
A year ago, Michigan’s offensive expectations hovered near an all-time low. Now, with Gattis in tow, an NFL-caliber quarterback under center and a prized recruiting class entering its junior year, 2019 has all the ingredients to be the Wolverines’ best offense in years. Whether or not it gets there may rest on the shoulders of its talented receiving corps.