(Ed note: Bumped for being the kind of Fan Post content that deserves the front page.)
When it was announced that wide receiver Junior Hemingway would be wearing a special commemorative patch in honor of Desmond Howard, who also wore No. 21, on the eve of the "Under the Lights" game against Notre Dame, all eyes were on Hemingway as to how he'd perform.
In Spring 2011, the coaches had raved about Hemingway's potential to be a great Michigan receiver. "His upside is absolutely phenomenal," wide receivers coach Jeff Hecklinski told Michael Spath in the 2011 Preview issue of The Wolverine. "I don't think Junior realizes how good he can be; he's that natural at the position ... He has everything you want and if he can get himself in phenomenal shape that man could really make a big name for himself." In the Maple Street Press-sponsored preview of the 2011 Michigan football season, produced by Brian Cook (founder of mgoblog.com), the analysis was similarly blunt for the fifth-year senior: "It's now or never for Junior Hemingway. This is the kind of offense that suits him."
In 2010, Hemingway had 32 total receptions for 593 yards and four total touchdown grabs. He wasn't the definition of a prolific wideout, at least not statistically, but he was reliable, a crucial trait that wide receivers would kill for and all quarterbacks want in a target. He also had an affinity for going up and catching jump balls--which is why analysts believed he'd be perfect for offensive coordinator Al Borges' more pro-style set.
Maybe it was the wearing of the No. 21 jersey, but in 2011 Hemingway had roughly the same number of catches (34) but increased his receiving yards to 699, more than a hundred from his previous year. He averaged 53.8 yards per game, his longest reception was 77 yards, and most of his big catches came in big games. Hemingway proved the difference maker in close contests against Notre Dame and against Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl, and he was named the Sugar Bowl MVP. I'd say that was a pretty successful senior year.
The bigger story, however, was that Hemingway had eclipsed projected starter Roy Roundtree in terms of production. Roundtree, who had standout freshman and sophomore seasons, in which he had 32 catches for 434 yards in 2009 and 72 catches for 935 yards in 2010, took a slight nosedive in the stats, catching only 19 passes for 355 yards--roughly half of what was accomplished by Hemingway that same year.
Of course, it's harder to have the same number of receptions when the ball is not thrown your way. Wide receivers can't control their quarterback's decision to throw the ball any more than a quarterback can control their wide receiver's ability to catch it. Roundtree's dip in production could be attributed to Michigan's shift to a more pro-style passing attack, which naturally has less receivers, whereas the spread offense has as many as five, or it could be attributed to Hemingway's reliability as a downfield threat. There were probably many times when Denard Robinson banked on Junior Hemingway's ability to catch a jump ball.
It's not as though Roundtree isn't reliable himself. As much as Hemingway did Desmond Howard proud wearing the No. 21 in the 2011 night game against Notre Dame, it was Roundtree who caught the game-winning touchdown pass with only two seconds on the clock. It was his only catch of the night. He apparently realized that if you want the ball thrown your way, you have to ask for it.
"We were in the huddle, and Roundtree said, 'I'm going to get the ball. Just give me the ball. Give me a chance, and I'm going to catch it,'" Denard Robinson told ESPN's Chris Fowler in a post-game interview. Despite that being his single catch of the game, Roundtree made sure it was a good one. "I’m a team player," he said in the media post-game press conference. "I’ll go out there and put my hand in the dirt and block. I’m not really concerned about the ball. As long as we win, that’s what I’m here for. I’m a team player. I’m not stingy with the football, and now look, I got the game winner."
So Roundtree's got skills. He excited the Michigan fan base with his freshman season where he seemed like he'd be the next great Michigan wide receiver, and as a sophomore, where he racked up great yards. However, Roundtree's abilities haven't been perfect in those campaigns. He dropped several easy-to-make catches, the worst of which were frequently on third down, most frustratingly in the game against Ohio State in 2010.
Frustrated by the 2010 defeat against the Buckeyes, Michigan blog Genuinely Sarcastic counted Roundtree among the wide receivers who failed to produce when it counted: "The wide receivers are pretty good at catching the ball...except against legitimate, 'old school' Big Ten defenses. Then they get alligator arms and start dropping everything." Things obviously got better in the 2011 campaign, where Michigan's receivers (including Roundtree) were instrumental in their 11-win run that included a victory over the hated rivals.
Going into 2012, the Sports Illustrated Big Ten Preview has Roundtree pegged as the starter for the second year in a row. Alongside junior Jeremy Gallon, Roundtree (now a redshirt senior) is expected to fill the gap left by high-reception targets such as Hemingway and tight end Kevin Koger, both of whom have started their careers in the NFL. Perhaps hoping that he will replicate the same senior-year performance as did Hemingway, the Michigan coaches have bestowed on Roundtree the No. 21 jersey and the Desmond Howard patch.
"I know what it takes to wear the winged helmet and I know what it takes to be a Michigan football player," Roundtree said in an athletic department press release. "I won't disappoint wearing this jersey. It's an honor to be associated with Desmond Howard. I will live with it for the rest of my life."
How he received the honor was something of a surprise. "Coach Hoke and I discussed it, and one day I came into the locker room and went to the No. 12 locker and didn't see my name anymore," he said. "I laughed, looked around and there it was, at No. 21."
This is an interesting tactic by the Michigan coaches, if a tactic is indeed what it is. Typically--or, rather, traditionally--an outstanding receiver receives the No. 1 jersey as a distinction, but this has always been a reward rather than a motivation. (Of course, there has been many chicken-egg type arguments on it: Is it the player that makes No. 1 great, or is it the No. 1 jersey that makes the player great?) The last person to wear No. 1 as a Michigan tradition was Braylon Edwards, who was already fairly accomplished as a wide receiver by the time he received the honor. And even then, the No. 1 jersey had started as a tradition for honoring famed wide receiver Anthony Carter, who originally brought the number recognition.
When Junior Hemingway received the patch that honored Desmond Howard, I always figured it was more based on coincidence and done more as a recognition of Howard than as a recognition of Hemingway. The patch was going to whomever was wearing Howard's number. It wouldn't have mattered if that person was a freshman or a senior. But when Hemingway took the patch as an opportunity to stand out, it is conceivable that the coaches are hoping that Roundtree will honor the Desmond Howard patch in the same way. Or, at least, that's what's indicated by making Roundtree switch numbers.
By wearing the patch, Junior Hemingway didn't become the next Desmond Howard, but he did have a successful and productive senior season when the Wolverines desperately needed it. Because Hemingway responded so well to the constant reminder that Desmond Howard wore No. 21, the coaches probably thought they were on to something. Despite Roundtree's immense skills, we should not expect him to become the next Desmond Howard, who won the Heisman trophy in 1991. However, if Roundtree makes the most of his senior year as Junior Hemingway did (effectively becoming "the next Junior Hemingway"), then that would not only help Michigan out of a tight spot, it would also be extraordinary and memorable.
It is certainly doable: there are no receivers on the depth chart with more experience than Roundtree and Jeremy Gallon, and Roundtree has already moved to Hemingway's spot (Flanker). When Denard Robinson has to throw the ball, he'll most likely have to throw to Roundtree.
During spring practice, he discussed his switch from Slot to Flanker. "I've played Slot before," Roundtree said. "I've been through it all. And now moving to Flanker, it's just going to help me learn another position, and seeing Gallon out there running X...you never know. You may see us switch up sometimes because Coach Borges [is] really a mind freak when it comes to the playbook."
Facing its toughest schedule in years, Michigan will be counting on Roundtree to make reliable catches this season. And being that this is his last year, his situation going forward is fairly similar to Junior Hemingway's: It's now or never. If Roundtree can have a great season, Michigan will have a great season.
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