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2013 Season Preview: Wide Receivers and Tight Ends

Devin Gardner won't be able to do it alone, and thanks to a widely varying set of pass catching targets, he will have a number of dangerous weapons to use.

Jump balls?  No problem.
Jump balls? No problem.
Gregory Shamus

Previously on: The Secondary, The Linebackers, The Defensive Line, The Defensive Outlook, Special Teams, The Offensive Line

You can see the remnants of it. Leeeeeetle Jeremy Gallon skying for jump balls against corners that are taller than he is. Drew Dileo working the slight creases over the middle to get just enough room for a reasonable catching window. No tight end old enough to legally drink at a bar.

Michigan's offensive shift has been going on everywhere and at varying speeds. The wide receivers are the latest unit to be in the death throes of the old way of doing things. Slot receivers built to attack in space are now being paired with long, tall leapers that attack down the field. Tight ends-like substances are everywhere and in all sorts of forms.

Michigan's passing game this year has fully shifted to the pro-style, deep-attack that Al Borges has sought to run since he showed up on campus, saw Denard Robinson, and shelved 90% of it because thats what you do when someone gives you a nice toy like Denard; you play a different game for a while before someone takes it away.

Next year the last remnants of the slot ninja offense will be all but gone and Michigan will once again be a team where being 6'1 or under pencils you into the slot.

This year it looks like Al Borges has one of those really fat Swiss Army knives with 100 things that flip out, 90 of them you might only use once. Finding the right tool for the job won't always be quick, but they are there.

Outside Receivers

Starter RS-Sr. Jeremy Gallon RS-Fr. Jehu Chesson
Backup RS-Sr. Joe Reynolds Sr. Jeremy Jackson

Tell me if you've heard this before: if Gallon's production over the last five games of 2012 continues this year he will amass something like one billion yards and all of the touchdowns in 2013 with a full season of Devin Gardner running the offense.

While the two might not team up to rip time and space apart, the expectation has to be for Gallon to use his 500+ yards in five game pace over the end of last season as a springboard into a 1000+ yard campaign and an all-Big Ten selection in 2013.

The talent is certainly there. Gallon started his career in the slot and showed a good deal of elusiveness on underneath routes and bubble screens. He was soon Michigan's designated throwback screen recipient, and eventually when Michigan needed another outside receiver upon the graduation of Junior Hemingway, it was Gallon who shifted outside to take on man coverage on the outside.

A lot of football speculation is talk about where someone does or doesn't fit based on size, speed, strength numbers that are a lot more clear cut than the full picture. If you go off these, Jeremy Gallon shouldn't be an effective receiver. If you go off his ability to high-point the ball, get separation from corners, and find openings in a defense (just ask Notre Dame), it might not matter if he was 4'8 (yes, it would).

Gallon will be Michigan's top target. He and Gardner are already well known for their time spent in the off season working on routes and developing a rapport. Because of this and Michigan's need for someone to take the lead, Gallon will surpass 1000 yards this year and be one of the best receivers in the Big Ten. Someone will see his name on the all-Big Ten team this winter and remark about his height, not knowing that at some point, it couldn't matter less.

Of course, Gallon can't do it all himself. Especially when you consider that his game is predicated on getting open on shorter routes and picking up yards after the catch. Across from him could be Michigan's true deep threat, the 6'3 Jehu Chesson.

The spot was originally going to belong to Amara Darboh before a foot injury derailed his season and sent him to the bench for a redshirt year. Darboh had the benefit of playing backup duty a year ago, as well as being a little more physically ready for the position at 6'2, 210lbs. While Chesson is still thin, he has more than enough athleticism to give Devin Gardner a big time target down the field. Chesson was a state champion hurdler in high school and his speed and length could make him a matchup nightmare on the outside for opposing corners.

It still remains to be seen how well Chesson can block, and if he struggles with that aspect of the game he could be spelled by either walk-on Joe Reynolds or senior Jeremy Jackson.

Reynolds established himself as a rotation player last year based on his blocking skills, and he even caught a few passes. He has shown up multiple times in videos coming out of fall camp and he will have a spot on the field. Jackson is more of the possession receiver type. He is big, but not athletic enough to beat you down the field.

Michigan will be hoping for big production from Gallon and Chesson, with the other two providing depth and some run blocking. However, some of the best weapons will be lining up farther inside.

Slot Receiver and Tight End

Slot Receiver Tight End
Starter Sr. Drew Dileo So. Devin Funchess
Backup So. Dennis Norfleet So. A.J. Williams

Even with Jeremy Gallon shifting to the outside, Michigan is well set at slot receiver thanks to the steady hand of Drew Dileo.

Not the fastest, strongest, or biggest guy on the field, Dileo nevertheless has a knack for coming up with important plays when they are needed most while also catching just about everything thrown his way. He is most remembered for his four catches against Michigan State a year ago, and if it weren't for him Michigan may well have lost that game. Dileo is a reliable presence over the middle and he has a good feel for the defense around him. His hands are so good that the coaches have used him as the holder on place kicks for the last two years.

The downside is that Dileo isn't a threat to break long touchdowns. While he has is good at squeezing out extra yards, he was routinely tracked down from behind when out in the open field. Instead, Michigan will look to unleash Dennis Norfleet as a potential big play threat.

The sophomore spent last year teasing everyone with kick returns that always seemed just this close to going for big yards, and he has no qualms about reversing field or trying to pick up yards just about anyway he can. Norfleet was a late addition to the 2012 class and also played some running back last year, but his size makes him a hard fit as anything but a third-down back in this offense, and there are potentially better uses for him elsewhere.

How the coaches plan to use him is still a mystery, although if he doesn't become the first guy in line for every jet sweep that the offense runs, I'll be seriously disappointed. Norfleet will be the kind of offensive weapon that could pay large dividends if the coaches can find the right way to incorporate him into the offense.

Another player that looks primed to take on a bigger role is tight end Devin Funchess. Last year he started the season out strong and proved to be almost uncover-able over the middle and in the end zone, but his production fell off as the season wore on, a combination of the switch at quarterback and what Funchess called his "pretty boy" attitude when it came to blocking and getting hit.

Funchess has spent a year in the program now, and has developed to the point where he should be more capable of blocking. If he can provide this, his inclusion in plays is less of a signal that it is a pass, and it will allow the offense to get more creative and tricky.

As a receiver he is an almost perfect target to work over the middle. His size is a huge advantage over safeties and corners, and his speed and strength is enough to stay ahead of linebackers and exploit mismatches all over the field. Then, there is always the "throw it high to the back of the endzone" element that can be employed in the redzone, as there is a height at which Funchess is the only one that can make the catch.

For more of a traditional blocking tight end, Michigan will turn to sophomore A.J. Williams. Williams played alongside Funchess a year ago and had his own struggles with blocking, but a year in the program has helped him get lean and work on technique. Williams hasn't flashed much in the way of pass catching potential yet, but with the varying options around him, he will probably be used sparingly in that regard.

Since Michigan will be going deep with its tight ends, there is always the chance that two of Michigan's true freshmen work their way into the lineup. Most likely to do this is Jake Butt, and early enrollee that is about as big as Devin Funchess and could be called on to be a third tight end in 3TE sets, as well as another weapon in the passing game due to his height.

The other player is TE/U-Back Khalid Hill, more of a TE/FB hybrid that wasn't highly sought after as a recruit, but who caught everything as Shane Morris's outlet valve in 7-on-7's, and has shown an ability to run good routes and find openings in the defense.

* * *

Michigan's passing game will be highly dependent on how much Devin Gardner improved his accuracy and footwork in the off season. The passing game struggled for two years with Denard Robinson at the helm, and while Gardner has already proven to be a better down field passer than that, if he can really make the leap, he has a solid group of receivers to which he can throw the ball.