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Michigan football will be asking a lot from its receivers this year

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The receiving corps is going to look completely different this year. Relying on freshman pass catchers hasn’t ever gone wrong, right?

Maryland v Michigan Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Last season’s passing attack led by Wilton Speight was an up and down affair marred by injury and inconsistency that nevertheless ended up being just about fine. As a team, Michigan completed a shade under 62% of its passes and boasted a 19:7 TD to INT ratio. Speight himself had a two steps forward, one step back type season before a shoulder injury against Iowa limited his effectiveness while his core group of receivers all had good-to-excellent seasons.

There’s a lot to replace here, is what I’m saying.

Amarah Darboh, Jehu Chesson, and—though not technically a receiver—Jake Butt were all selected in this year’s NFL draft and leave behind quite a void for Speight, Harbaugh, and Pep Hamilton to figure out how to fill. Together, they caught 138 balls for 1,948 yards and 13 touchdowns. The next three leading receivers caught 35 balls for 388 yards and 4 touchdowns, and the leader amongst them was Grant Perry, who may or may not be with the team this season.

Michigan v Ohio State
Two-Thirds Gone
Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

The Darboh-Chesson-Butt Hydra suited Speight well as a first year starter under center. Chesson never recaptured the magic from the end of 2015 when he was lighting up secondaries thirty yards downfield, but he was still a solid presence over the middle and forced safeties to stay high once Speight proved he actually could throw a deep ball. Darboh was the favorite target last season, accounting for 300 yards more yards than the next leading receiver. With few exceptions, Darboh was sure handed, ran precise routes, and was able to bail his quarterback out of tough spots with remarkable catches.

Jake Butt proved to be a necessary safety valve that would seemingly catch anything thrown within five yards of him, extending drives and saving coverage sacks.

All of that is to say what was pretty apparent if one watched a handful of Michigan games last year: a (somewhat surprisingly) very good receiving corps helped a middle of the road quarterback sustain a consistent, effective air game. The question now, of course, is how that translates to this season and if the same middle of the road quarterback can lead a group of inexperienced receivers to comparable results.

Who’s Still Here

So, uh there’re a couple guys. Kekoa Crawford, he of the four catches for forty-seven yards and one touchdown last season, is expected to emerge as the top returning option for Wilton Speight this year. That tells you how little production is actually returning but also how much Michigan fans are desperate for a receiver wearing number one to be good athleticism Crawford flashed last year in ancillary duties and the fact that he’s already a big, broad receiver, standing 6’2 and weighing 195 pounds.

Michigan v Ohio State Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Eddie McDoom was a fan favorite last season, because who can not like a dude whose entire existence on the field telegraphs a reverse to the defense and still averages ten yards a carry? As the season rolled along he seemed to garner more trust from the coaching staff and he was playing on passing downs.

Much remains to be seen, but McDoom has all the trappings of a shifty, rangy slot receiver: at 6’1, 180, he could probably run outside if not for all the other pass-catching giants on the roster, and his agility and experience running into groups of defenders would probably suit him well in that role.

Which of course brings us to the team’s leading returning receiver, Grant Perry. Without diving too much into all of his extra-football circumstances, it’s unclear if and when he will be back as a full participant, though we should know soon. If he’s back, he’ll be Michigan’s most veteran, most previously-productive receiver. He’s good across the middle and on short yardage situations, but a little shaky downfield. Still, having a guy that can run precise routes and find soft spots in zones would be a huge help to an athletic but wildly inexperienced group of pass catchers.

Who’s New

Donovan Peoples-Jones is here, and while we should always be sure to temper expectations for freshman receivers, dude is basically faster David Terrell. As Michigan’s highest rated receiver recruit ever, there are profiles everywhere that can go into more depth than we can here; this is probably good place to start. He’s an absolute freak and has the potential to be the best receiver the program has seen since Braylon, as much as I love Mario Manningham and, uh, Amarah Darboh? Point is that DPJ can do things that the vast majority of humans cannot do; for example, everything in this video:

Definitely looking forward to the first time Speight gets rushed and chucks the ball forty yards downfield indiscriminately.

We’re not done with rookies yet, as consensus four star recruit Tarik Black will join (sporadically for now) Jones on the outside. At 6’4, 208, he’s going to be a lot of fun downfield; he, like DPJ, can just go up over corners and safties and just pluck the ball out of the air. Freshman receivers caveats apply, of course, but his performance in the Spring Game has most everyone excited to see what he can do this season.

He went over the middle successfully, caught a few balls in the flat, and—most excitingly—went up over his teammates on a few pretty fade routes down the sideline, including one for a touchdown. If he can be even half that versatile come September, Black could be a legit weapon for the offense, given his size and speed. Both of the star freshmen are going to have problems with route precision and reading coverages, but they have the advantage of being home run hitters that can score whenever they have the ball in their hands, so it’s just a matter of creatively getting it there.

There’s plenty of reason to be giddy about the long term prospects of this passing attack (not the least of which is a certain backup quarterback, but that’s a story for another day), but this is going to be an up and down affair through the air. Speight has proven he can get the ball to receivers when healthy, but he has also proven is prone to misreads and underthrows. That said, at least he’s proven something, which is more than we can say about the receivers at this point; still, the potential there alone is enough to make this collection of players fun, if nothing else.