Previously on...* Secondary
* Defensive Line
* Offensive Line
Michigan's pass offense came to life last year late when Devin Gardner stepped into the starting role for the injured Denard Robinson. Gardner, who had spent most of the season as a wide receiver himself, quickly shook off the rust and acclimated to the starting role under center. His stats over the last five games were better than Robinson's first eight games in everything but total yards — where Robinson held a 1319 to 1219 edge. Michigan's pass offense was looking up.
The question (or at least one of them) now is how well can Michigan's receivers play over the course of a full season. The last second implementation of Gardner was able to help throw some defenses off late, and Michigan is losing two of its top four receivers from a year ago: the graduating Roy Roundtree and the now-throwing-passes Gardner.
What will the unit look like in 2013? Let's try to take a look.
Last year: Jr. Jeremy Gallon
This year: Sr. Jeremy Gallon
Listening to more than 30 seconds of the Devin Gardner hype inevitably leads to someone invoking Jeremy Gallon's stats the last five games and saying "what if..." It is an intriguing prospect, and certainly something has to be said for Gallon's potential as Gardner's top target. In the last five games of 2012 Gallon pulled in well over half his 829 yards (511 to be exact) while scoring three of his four touchdowns. If nothing else, the bowl game should be a good indication of the Gardner-Gallon connection at its very best. Gallon pulled in nine receptions for 145 yards and two touchdowns in the game.
Two things should be readily apparent at this point. First, Michigan is pretty well set at one of the outside spots. Despite being a slot receiver in almost every respect but his actual position on the field, Jeremy Gallon has already played on the outside for a full year. He also has another year of significant experience in 2011. He is the senior-most receiver on the team in terms of game experience, and the floor for his total production is set somewhere around "probably pretty good."
But, what if?
It is an intriguing prospect. If you take those numbers that Gallon put up in five games with Gardner throwing to him and cast them across a full season and a bowl game you're looking at over 1300 yards and eight touchdowns. That's a top ten receiver in the nation.
Now granted, the odds of that kind of consistent production aren't great. There is no more surprise or adjustment for teams looking to slow down Gardner as a passer, and opposing defenses are going to very well zone in on Gallon as the guy. Also, even with the impressive game against South Carolina (145 yards, 2 TDs), one has to consider the six catch, 67 yard performance the previous game against Ohio State.
For Gallon to reach 1300 yards he would need to average 100 per game. That seems a little high, especially with a running game that doesn't yet look like it will be able to scare eight defenders into the box. More likely is that Gallon does enough to get just around 1000 yards on the season, struggling against some of the better defenses on the schedule. Will you take that? Yeah, we all will.
Last year: Sr. Roy Roundtree
This year: So. Amara Darboh
The list of players better suited for Rich Rodriguez's spread offense reads: 1. Denard Robinson, 2. his favorite target, Roy Roundtree.
'Tree's 2010 season was impressive — finishing with 935 yards and 7 TDs — but it was interesting to watch how much of his success was built into the offense. A quick jab fake by Denard Robinson would quite often open up the entire western hemisphere for seam passes, and despite not being the fastest guy or the strongest guy, Roundtree was sneakily good at finding the right place to be when Robinson looked up and saw a sea of green. Still, against the four best defenses he faced that year (MSU, PSU, Iowa, OSU) he never went over 50 yards in a game or caught a touchdown pass.
This is all a roundabout way of me telling you what you already know: Roy Roundtree was a physically limited receiver. A capable slot receiver in the right situation that could disappear against better defenses. And disappear he did the next season when he shifted outside. His production bounced back a bit as a senior, but not enough for his two upperclass years to surpass the production of his stellar sophomore campaign.
Still, Michigan is replacing a multi-year starter. The hope is that it will be doing so with a player more suited for the position. Given the size difference (Roundtree was 6'0, 180 lbs compared to Darboh at 6'2, 213 lbs) it would seem that there is a good chance. The thing is, Amara Darboh — the more game ready second-year outside receiver — has more time on special teams duties than wide receiver. He hasn't caught a pass in a game and other than a nifty grab in the spring game, the book on him is almost completely unwritten.
The scouting reports paint a picture of a strong, physical outside guy that won't burn you with his speed but can control his body and make catches away from it. If you're frantically raising your hand and saying " Oh oh oh, Jason Avant, that's it, right, he's Avant" then you might not be far off. Although that exists as something of a far reaching best case scenario (multi-year starter and longtime NFL player), it seems like Darboh has the kind of skills to approximate that type of receiver.
How good will he be as a first time starter in 2013? Will he be able to produce more than the wile but physically limited Roundtree? Will he be able to hold off the leaping gazelle that is Jehu Chesson? I wouldn't bet on a breakout campaign or a bust. Darboh should put together a solid season in the number two/possession receiver role that he looks like he will slot into as Michigan begins to trot out a few more home run threats in the next couple years. That should be enough given some of the talent Michigan has elsewhere in the receiving game.
Verdict: even (what he lacks in experience he will make up for in strength and size).
Come back next week as we look at the rest of Al Borges' bag of offensive weapons in the passing game.