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For Michigan’s tight ends and receivers, getting separation is the name of the game

Photo credit: Chris Cook, MGoBlog

Let’s rewind. It’s early in the first quarter between Michigan and Florida. Kekoa Crawford goes in motion from the left side to the right, which draws him a matchup against veteran Gator cornerback Duke Dawson. Dawson, 5’10” 202 pounds, is about to be challenged deep.

The play is live, and Wilton Speight play-actions to Chris Evans before unloading more than 40 yards downfield. Crawford has Dawson beat, but not by much. Dawson is holding Crawford’s jersey, and he reaches an arm out and knocks Crawford’s helmet while the Michigan receiver goes to the ground in a last-ditch attempt to catch an errant pass. Result: defensive pass interference, automatic first down.

This was a pretty typical college play. An NFL-caliber throw could have gotten a completion, but Wilton Speight’s throw showed only decent touch (it was a little short) and decent timing (a little too deep in the route, as safeties were converging). Crawford, meanwhile, got minimal separation against an athletic corner - regardless of the tugging of the jersey, Duke Dawson was close in step behind and ready to make a play on whatever ball came his way.

This was a play call designed to get Kekoa Crawford open, and he only managed it barely. Other factors ended up playing a role than his speed, like Crawford’s hands, his body control, and being in perfect sync with his quarterback. In other instances, upper body strength and the ability to get open vertically also come into play for receivers to successfully make plays.

NCAA Football: Florida at Michigan Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Michigan’s group of pass catchers is certainly athletic - there’s no doubt about that. But against athletic defenses, they’ll need a little bit more in order to be consistently successful. Michigan did in fact show their youth last Saturday, even though their knowledge of the offense seemed - dare I say - terrific. They showed their youth in another way; it was in those little moments when the ball could have been sailing through the air toward their number, and they weren’t ... well, they weren’t Jerry Rice.

***

It’s mid-August of 2017, and Jerry Rice is putting on cleats to play for the San Francisco 49ers. This isn’t game action; he’s helping the team practice and acting as a mentor for a young group of wideouts, led by Pierre Garçon and Marquise Goodwin. Half of the six receivers on the team are rookies. Rice was on hand to give advice and remind a struggling franchise of its proud history.

So what advice did the greatest wide receiver of all time give to those young guys?

"He told me to just focus on route running," said Kendrick Bourne, a rookie out of Eastern Washington. "That's what it really comes down to in this league is separation, getting that little bit of separation."

Jerry Rice took the field for the 49ers in practice and showed the young’uns some of his former magic; he also had a false start, but we won’t begrudge him one of those at his age.

Jerry Rice remains the enduring example of making the most of one’s athletic gifts. He was a terrific athlete during his time, but it was the practice and the perfection (and a little bit of Stickum) that made him so good for so long. There was only one Jerry Rice, so telling anyone they fall short of that standard is folly. But receivers everywhere try to perfect their skills by replicating what Rice was successfully able to do.

For Michigan, the big question going forward is simple: how quickly can Michigan’s young athletes turn their speed into separation?

NCAA Football: Florida at Michigan Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

“What have you seen from the receivers so far?”

“A lot of raw talent. A lot of raw talent. Guys that are explosive, guys that are fast, guys that have a lot of work to do to be able to just consistently win versus man coverage.”

“How about blocking and route-running?”

“All of the above, yep.”

Pep Hamilton’s analysis during spring practice was somewhat prophetic of what we’ve seen so far in 2017. A lot of work has already been done; but a lot of work still needs to happen for these guys to consistently get their first downs. Once that happens - watch out.

In the meantime, Jim Harbaugh is finding ways to keep the offense humming. Athleticism is certainly very handy, and there’s also plenty of size that will let guys get open vertically. But against Florida, Michigan used some noticeable ‘off-schedule’ runs to get the job done.

“There’s a bit of element of surprise there, no question,” said Jim Harbaugh after the game. “If you don’t get it, some of the fans boo - why did you run if on third-and-nine, third-and-10? The plan is you’re trying to make the right calls at the right time and sometimes you’re right and sometimes you’re not.”

Going forward, expect this offense to take baby steps toward being a well-oiled machine. Speed and size will help this team remain effective while guys continue to learn the nuances to their positions. As for Jerry Rice, they have a long way to go - but all you can do is try.