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Michigan Monday: Wolverine Offense Will Go as Far as Freshman Wideouts Take It?

Michigan Monday

The title of this week’s Michigan Monday is a question because I just don’t know how accurate it is.

What I do know is that the Wolverines are replacing receivers Jehu Chesson and Amara Darboh, as well as their 200 receptions over the last two seasons. How will they be doing that? I have some ideas. Well, four of them.

Michigan is returning 27 receptions from their wide receivers in 2016. Thirteen of those catches belong to junior Grant Perry, who is currently suspended and doesn’t appear to be getting unsuspended any time soon. Two of the remaining 14 receptions belong to Drake Harris, who moved to cornerback last month.

That leaves a dozen catches between sophomore Eddie McDoom (5), sophomore Kekoa Crawford (4), junior Maurice Ways (2), and sophomore Nate Johnson (1).

I’m not going to sit here and put too much stock in a lack of returning receptions, especially in a piece where I’m later going to be heaping praise and expectations upon a group of freshman receivers who haven’t done anything yet. Still, we have to wonder where 100-120 receptions are going to come from. I don’t expect it to be just two guys like it has been for the bulk of the last two seasons. But for the first time under Jim Harbaugh, I don’t think it needs to be. There are more options now.

Enter the Freshmen

I know Buckeye fans like their 2017 receiver class of Trevon Grimes, Jaylen Harris, and Ellijah Gardiner, and they should. Michigan fans, however, will tell you that the Wolverines signed the top receiver class in the nation this past February. And I’m not sure I can disagree.

Donovan Peoples-Jones, Tarik Black, Nico Collins, and Oliver Martin were all blue-chip prospects in high school, and they all bring different skills to an offense.

Peoples-Jones is arguably the top athlete in the entire 2017 class. He enrolled in the spring and was used inside and outside. He’s a 4.4 guy and he puts it to good use. At 6-foot-2 and 190 pounds, however, he’s not a little dude. In fact, he can play bigger than his size or smaller than his size, which is one reason he could be a very effective middle-of-the-field guy.

The thing that really stands out to me as I watch him isn’t how athletic he is, but how natural his athleticism is put to use. His body is always in control. His feet are where they need to be. He always knows where he is on the field. You know how some basketball players have a feel for the rim when they’re in the paint? That’s Donovan Peoples-Jones on the football field. Or at least it was in high school.

Peoples-Jones missed some time in the spring, but just being around the process of college football will have him better equipped to contribute this season. As a Buckeye fan, imagine how much better you’d feel about Trevon Grimes’ chances this season if he would have been healthy and enrolled this winter and participating in spring ball.

Now imagine if you had two of him.

Donovan Peoples-Jones was joined by Tarik Black (6-4 206) in UM’s group of early enrollees this winter and he has made quite an impression so far. I really liked what I saw from Black in Michigan’s spring game, as he got open down the sideline several times. He is also going to be a problem in the red zone. I don’t know if that will happen this year, but it wouldn’t surprise me at all. He looks like a guy who can go through the motions and catch eight touchdown passes any given year.

But he doesn’t go through the motions, at least from the reports this spring. He may have been overshadowed a bit by DPJ and Nico Collins in this class, but he shouldn’t be. He’s a guy who can make yards after the catch, as well as after contact.

Black just feels like the old Lloyd Carr-era Michigan receivers. By the way, check out the highlight above at the 36-second mark or so. Tarik Black is the Human Hypotenuse.

I mentioned Nico Collins (6-4 201) a couple of times already, and he’s about the same size as Black. His physicality helps in his separation. For a receiver, he plays a helluva power forward. Just based on some limited YouTubing, I don’t know how much of a run-after-the-catch guy he is. He seems like more of a pushed-out-of-bounds-after-a-12-yard-catch-on-third-and-11 guy.

He’s also a bit of a bully to corners. So no, I’m not sure how fast he is, but you show me a bully with speed and I’ll show you the makings of a supervillain.

If I was doing this in order of “Levels of Concern for Buckeye Fans”, the fourth guy I’m going to talk about here should have been the third guy. Oliver Martin (6-1 189) gets overlooked by most people — including me — because he’s from Iowa. This, of course, is silly considering Amara Darboh is from Iowa and we all know how he turned out. Ohio State tried to get in on Martin late, offering him a couple of weeks before signing day when they were scattering for a third 2017 receiver. To no avail, clearly.

Based on my limited viewings (which is how I base all of my opinions about things) of Martin, he’s essentially Iowa high school football’s version of Devin Smith. He gets open deep and he stays open deep. He ran a 4.57 at a Nike camp, which equates to about a 4.47 hand-time. The good news for the Buckeyes here, however, is that Ohio State doesn’t have any cornerbacks from Iowa on their roster.

For some reason, I expect Martin to surprise some people. Does that mean ~20 catches in 2017? I think that would be a pretty significant contribution, but it might be too much to ask. Watching his highlights, I just see him slipping behind a defense a time or two this season.

What Does It All Mean?

Relying on freshman receivers isn’t like relying on freshman quarterbacks. A freshman quarterback is guaranteed to lose you at least one game during the course of a season. Freshman receivers, however, bolster the unit as a whole — or they at least make the current receivers work harder to keep their respective spots.

I might be making too much of this group, especially if quarterback Wilton Speight can’t find the necessary consistency. However, an inconsistent quarterback throwing to freshman receivers can lead to some very ugly interceptions.

I do wonder how well this staff can develop receivers. Do they get credit for developing Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson? They certainly get credit for topping them off. No other receivers have been able to step up and contribute in a meaningful way, however. Eddie McDoom was a jet sweep guy last year. Can they turn high schoolers into college wide receivers? I see no reason to think they can’t, but I don’t think it’s wrong to wonder.

People may say that ultimately this season will come down to what the Michigan defense does. It wouldn’t necessarily have to if the freshman receivers can make the kind of impact that I think they might.

If they can get production out of two or three of these four rookies, that will make the running game better too. I’m not saying the offense hinges on four freshman receivers, but I’m saying if these guys are good, then Michigan’s offense will be as well. If they’re not, I believe there will be some noticeable limitations.

After all, if you want defenses to back off of the line of scrimmage, you have to make them pay, but I see some young receivers who can do that for Michigan.

This is a promising and intriguing group that is going to make a lot of noise over these next few years, and probably very early on.

Until then, however, here’s Ohio State freshman cornerback Jeffrey Okudah in coverage against Michigan freshman wide receiver Tarik Black in the Army All-American Bowl.

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