Another day, another installment of the series where Anthony Broome and Drew Hallett address what they believe are the 10 biggest questions and storylines surrounding Michigan football and whether the Wolverines will be successful in 2015. Today marks the fourth installment, in which Anthony and Drew debate whether a playmaker will emerge in the passing game for the Maize and Blue.
Drew: Since 2010, Michigan has had a clear-cut No. 1 wide receiver each season. In 2010, it was Roy Roundtree (72 rec., 935 yards, 7 TD). In 2011, notwithstanding numbers that are less than what my memory recalls, it was Junior Hemingway (34 rec., 699 yards, 4 TD). In 2012 and 2013, it was Jeremy Gallon (138 rec., 2,202 yards, 13 TD). And, in 2014, it was Devin Funchess (62 rec., 733 yards, 4 TD). Funchess would have retained the title in 2015 if he had chosen to remain at Michigan for his senior year, but -- who can blame him? -- he opted to pursue his NFL dreams.
This leaves Michigan with a problem: it is less certain about who will produce at the wide receiver position in 2015 than Brady Hoke is about concussion protocol.
The two options at whom Michigan will look first is Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson. Both are redshirt juniors with starting experience. Darboh filled in as Michigan’s No. 2 receiver behind Funchess last season, hauling in 36 passes for 473 yards and two touchdowns, while the speedster, Chesson, tallied only 14 catches for 154 yards. Anthony, based on what we have seen from Darboh and Chesson on the field, do you think one of them can become that No. 1 receiver?
Anthony: I actually like what both of them bring to the table, but we have not seen enough of them consistently to this point. But I do believe both have the ability to be solid targets on the outside for the Wolverines.
Darboh is not exactly a burner, but he is a solid route runner. Chesson is a quicker, taller target, but he has yet to put it all together. I think that while neither of them are potential stars, they can both be reliable targets for Michigan in the passing game. But I’m not completely sold on either just yet. I’ve always liked the potential, but much like the rest of the team, we are still waiting to see it.
Drew: Neither are No. 1-caliber receivers in my book. A No. 1 receiver is a weapon -- a player that requires double teams because either he can generate big plays down field or he can run a crisp route and get open whenever he wants. Darboh and Chesson don't fit.
Darboh is perfect as a No. 2 option. He's a big-bodied receiver that can shield off corners on slants, ins, and hitches. What he's not is a receiver with speed to beat defenses over the top. Last season, Darboh had only one catch longer than 30 yards, and he wasn’t targeted deep often. That may be an indictment of the offense, but it's still not optimal.
On the other hand, Chesson does have that speed to burn defenses. There was one play I remember specifically in the spring game when Chesson torched Jourdan Lewis on a double move on the far side, but Shane Morris threw a fade to the near side that was intercepted by Brandon Watson. But Chesson is not as polished as Darboh and, due to strength concerns, has trouble getting into his routes off the line of scrimmage. That’s not the sign of a No. 1 receiver.
Nonetheless, Michigan may have no choice but to throw out Darboh and Chesson as the starting outside receivers if none of the young guns -- like Drake Harris, Moe Ways, or Brian Cole -- step up. Do you think any of those players are capable of being the No. 1 receiver this season?
Anthony: It’s interesting that you bring up Drake Harris because #sources from within the submarine are saying that he is having a really impressive showing in camp so far. He has had injury problems the last few years in high school and then last season when he took a redshirt as a true freshman. There were questions if he would even play football again, but so far he has answered the bell tremendously and has managed to stay healthy.
I’m also a big fan of both Moe Ways and Brian Cole. I ran into Moe Ways over the summer at the Sound Mind Sound Body Camp and he looked bigger and definitely added muscle to his tall frame. To me, he is a guy that has the ability to be a reliable red-zone target. One of the traits he displayed in his high school film was the ability to grab the ball at its highest point and make plays, so using him on the goal line as a fade route option is something I can see happening if he can crack the rotation.
Cole is only a true freshman, but has a leg up because he was an early enrollee. He is extremely dangerous with the ball in his hands and he received almost every touch on offense at Saginaw Heritage HS. Much of this came as a running back, but he was utilized in the passing game too. He is still a bit raw as a wideout, but it sounds like he has shown he belongs so far and he has the chance to make an early impact this year.
So to answer your question, again, I’m not sure who will end up being the number-one target, but they have multiple guys there that can break out if things work in their favor.
Drew: I think one of them can do it: Drake Harris. Harris was a top-100 prospect in the 2014 class and easily was Hoke’s best win at receiver on the recruiting trail. Why? Well, not only is Harris listed at 6-foot-4, he was considered an "elite" and "smooth" leaper. In high school, his vertical jump was measured at 39 inches -- who knows if that’s improved at Michigan? -- and he has a knack for high-pointing the football. Doesn’t that sound like the deep threat and No. 1 receiver that Michigan needs to attack through the air? It sure does. However, as you alluded to, Anthony, the question is whether Harris’ hamstrings, which have given him trouble the past few seasons, can hold up. Also, another question is whether Harris has the muscle to get by cornerbacks in press schemes. Harris weighs only 174 pounds according to the official roster. That’s pretty, pretty light. But if he can -- and the practice reports are accurate -- Michigan might have its No. 1 wideout.
Let’s be honest with ourselves, though: Michigan may not know whom its No. 1 wide receiver will be, but there is no question as to who will be Michigan’s top pass-catcher in 2015: the appropriately named tight end Jake Butt. Just how good do you expect Butt to be this season?
Anthony: I like Jake Butt, and I cannot lie.
Jim Harbaugh loves him, too, calling Butt one of the best tight ends he has ever coached at the college level. Anyone who has followed his coaching career knows that the tight end is a huge part of the offense and that will absolutely continue this year, assuming whoever is under center can get the ball to him.
The sky is the limit for Butt as long as he stays healthy. I can very easily see him being the leading receiver in terms of the stats this year. He’s a guy that should average at least five catches a game, based on what we know this staff’s confidence in him as a player. That’s not exactly going out on a limb, but that is where we are at here.
On an offense full of questions, he is the one sure thing that we know can be counted on.
Drew: Before I dive into why I think Jake Butt will have the best stats of any tight end in the Big Ten in 2015, which is bold because Michigan was 112th in the nation in passing offense last season , I want to discuss chemistry. Skill and talent are imperative to becoming successful receivers, but the connection that a receiver has with his quarterback enhances his performance. There is no better example of this than Jeremy Gallon and Devin Gardner in 2012 and 2013. Each time Gardner threw to Gallon, it was as if both had some sort of extrasensory perception that permitted them to communicate with each other as Gallon ran his route. It was freaky -- and awesome. However, we don’t know what Michigan’s receivers will have with either Jake Rudock or Shane Morris.
But, yesterday, you and I predicted that Rudock will be Michigan’s starting quarterback -- the same Rudock that spent the past two seasons checking down to his tight ends over and over and over again in Kirk Ferentz’s offense. Therefore, if Rudock is indeed the starter, Butt is going to be the happiest tight end in the Big Ten. And, by "happiest," I mean most productive. Given how much Harbaugh loves to use tight ends in his formations and packages, Butt will be on the field all of the time, and Rudock will check down to him in the middle of the field all of the time. Butt’s YPC will not wow anyone, but it is not hard to imagine that he will lead Michigan and all Big Ten tight ends in catches. He will be the most important receiver in the offense. No "butts" about it.
Let’s wrap up our conversation with one final question: how will Michigan’s passing attack perform as a whole in 2015: abominable, sub-par, mediocre, above average, or exceptional?
Anthony: I’ll optimistically say that this passing attack will be above average, if even just ever so slightly. I don’t know how that will play into the run vs. pass numbers at all, but in any percentage they decide to throw the ball, I am confident in the staff and the personnel that they can get the job done in the role that is carved out for them. This team is going to run the ball a lot and just needs guys to step up to make defenses respect the run and not stack the box against the Wolverines. We are in agreement that this team will not be explosive through the air, but they should be able to be efficient there.
Drew: I’m not as confident as you are. I think it will be mediocre at best. Even if Rudock is the starter and game manager with whom Michigan can live, I just don't see how Michigan will stretch the field. Rudock will have a high completion percentage and may limit turnovers if he checks down often, but, to have an above-average aerial attack, a team must be able to throw the ball down the field. If Rudock is not looking to do that, defenses will stack the box and play close to the line of scrimmage, clogging up the space in which Michigan will run its short and intermediate routes. The best way to counter such a defensive tactic is to have an outside receiver that threatens deep because, if the defense plays too tight too much, he will burn that defense for a touchdown. But, as we discussed, Michigan doesn't seem to have that player unless Harris breaks out, and I'm just not confident enough that is going to happen this season. Therefore, Michigan's passing game will be sub-par to mediocre, which is an improvement from 2014, sadly.
The other issue about not having a vertical passing game is that it can cause congestion for Michigan's running attack, but we will save that discussion for tomorrow's storyline.
Tomorrow, Anthony and Drew continue this series by addressing the other element of Michigan's offense -- the ground game -- and whether a No. 1 running back will emerge.
Previous Installments of Michigan Football's Biggest Storylines in 2015
August 17th: The Impact of Jim Harbaugh's Return
August 18th: Did Brady Hoke Leave the Cupboard Bare?
August 19th: Jake Rudock vs. Shane Morris -- Who Wins?