With the non-conference slate over and done with, this is a good time to take a look back at the past four games and analyze where Michigan stands, position group by position group. Michigan had several concerns coming into the season, namely: the lack of depth on the offensive line; the defensive line as a whole; and, yes, the wide receivers.
Indeed, the receiver position, like running back, is an underclassmen-friendly place to be. If you can block with some consistency on the edges, you will generally get some playing time, as has been the case going all the way back to the Lloyd era (that seems like it was ages ago, doesn't it?). Unfortunately, Michigan's talented freshmen receivers, Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson, have yet to make an impact throughout the first four games of their debut season in Ann Arbor. Combine this with the incredibly underrated loss of Junior Hemingway, the fact that Roy Roundtree post-2010 is no longer the same receiver he was as an underclassman, and the reliance on on a raw position switcher like Devin Gardner, an incredibly talented albeit green player at the position...and there are still many questions left to be answered as we delve into the veritable Heart of Darkness that is the Big Ten schedule.
We might as well start with Michigan's most talented and intriguing talent in the position group. Gardner, who of course converted to the receiver position out of necessity, has flashed the raw ability that he famously put on display in those high school tapes that made the rounds a few years ago.
Yet, Gardner has looked decidedly like a guy who is still learning the subtle intricacies of the position, intricacies that are generally lost on many fans but are ones that can push a receiver from "talented but raw" status to "that guy is good, period, no caveats." Thus far, despite being Michigan's leading receiver, Gardner without a doubt falls under the former category.
Through four games, Gardner has amassed 11 receptions for 195 yards and three touchdowns, including a long of 44 against Alabama in Cowboys Stadium (one of only a few bright spots on that day).
2012 Michigan Offense vs. Alabama Every Snap (via mgovideo)
Of course, the DB fell down on this play, but Gardner made the play and that's what counts. Gardner was clearly getting open, and Denard targeted him more than anybody else from the very beginning; perhaps this speaks to the lack of options elsewhere--or more probably the Crimson Tide's overall suffocating DB play--but it's obvious that if anybody is going to fill the designated "jump ball" role vacated by Hemingway, Gardner is the man for the job.
Gardner then went on to have his most prolific game to date against Air Force, racking up five receptions for 63 yards and a score. He showed some nice receiving savvy in his score against the Falcons, settling into a largely empty pocket of the end zone and watching his feet while reeling in a routine grab from a rolled out Denard.
2012 Michigan Offense vs. Air Force Every Snap (via mgovideo) 7:09
On the other hand, Gardner has showed an inability to adjust to the ball at times, most recently in that deep bomb last Saturday in South Bend on which he couldn't quite find his equilibrium before making an ill-fated attempt at the snag as he was getting thumped by the ND defensive back (Zeke Motta, I think?). This is just part of the deal with Gardner at this stage of his development. Of course, Denard's erratic passing has not put Gardner in the best spots, most notably on that pass to the end zone late in the ND game that ended in Gardner crashing into the photographer's stand. The space was there for Denard to put the ball in play, but he didn't give Gardner much of a chance at all.
Would Gardner have caught it if Denard at the very least had kept the ball inbounds? Maybe not, but Denard needs to do a bit of a better job, especially when throwing to a guy like Gardner. Although there's still no reason to expect that Gardner will turn into a world-destroying receiver a la Braylon Edwards circa the 2004 MSU game, it's fairly clear that he will be able to do some damage against quite a few defensive backs in straight up "go up and get it" situations.
Fortunately, Hoke says that Devin is "fine", assuaging the concerns of many, including myself, on the heels of that aforementioned painful meeting with the photographer's stand. There's not much point in assigning some silly grade here, as these sorts of posts will typically do, so I'll just provide some general words on the future of Devin Gardner at receiver: it is bright but will be fraught with great highs and frustrating lows. Michigan fans will have to be patient, as passes that might ordinarily be caught by Gardner, say, a year from now, will be dropped in sometimes frustrating fashion.
So, basically, just be patient. He's going to be a good one.
I hate saying things like "it is what it is", mostly because these statements carry very little transferable meaning, but Jeremy Gallon is a guy for whom this sort of empty calorie statement would apply. He is what he is, and in this case, what he is is a guy who excels on screens and and a variety of shorter routes that allow him to jitterbug around and fly under the radar like a low-flying fighter jet.
Through four games, Gallon has also amassed 11 receptions, his longest coming on a 71-yard strike against Alabama that eventually led to Michigan's only other score of the game. Despite being a slot ninja relic of the RR era, Gallon has at times showed the ability to be a downfield threat, which, again, probably has as much to do with the lack of alternatives post-Hemingway as it does with Gallon's own "cloaking device" capabilities, as MGoBlog often describes it.
After a quiet game against Air Force, Gallon picked up three receptions for 32 yards and three for 33 yards against UMass and Notre Dame, respectively. He also picked up a pair of carries against the Irish, going for a total of 13 yards; Michigan will likely need to to continue to involve Gallon (and hopefully Dennis Norfleet, going forward) in the reverse/general misdirection running game in order to free up that all important space for Denard to do what Denard when he's doing nice things.
Gallon had a pretty solid game against Purdue last season (3 receptions, 79 yards), and the Wolverines will need him to replicate that sort of performance if Michigan is going to win in West Lafayette without inducing thousands of Michigan fans into myocardial infarctions.
Ordinarily, a guy like Gallon should probably be the third or even fourth option on a stocked Michigan team, but for now Michigan will need Gallon to produce like a first-tier target. Luckily, the Big Ten, as you probably know, is kind of bad at just about everything; so Gallon should be able to make hay some serious hay against teams like Northwestern and Purdue, and probably several others too. The real question is, can he contribute some of those plays down the field against teams like Ohio State, Michigan State, and Nebraska?
Okay, yes, he is technically not a receiver. However, he pretty much is, not unlike a more athletic version of Travis Beckum. Funchess right now is probably what Greg Olsen was as a youngster; as a Bears fan who was pretty sad to see Olsen get traded away, if Funchess can be as good as G-Reg was, Michigan will be sitting pretty.
Through four games, the precocious freshman has amassed eight receptions for 151 yards and two touchdowns (a third of Michigan's receiving TDs, which to be fair is only six total). The most encouraging play of the season was of course his TD score against Air Force, where Denard tossed it perfectly enough that Funchess merely had to jump over a hapless AF defensive back for the easy pitch and catch.
Yes, blocking is still an issue, and Mike Kwiatowski will continue to get playing time because of this fact; who know what happens when Brandon Moore returns from injury, but I'm sure that he will return to the field in some capacity.
In a season that has not very fun to watch thus far--as much as Michigan football could ever be "not fun", even in the bad times--Funchess has been a rare positive lost amid a stormy sea of doom and gloom filled with enormous Kraken and giant squid (also known as "the Alabama defense").
Funchess was unfortunately somewhat of a non-factor in South Bend; who knows how things would have gone down if you replace that Vincent Smith halfback pass with a shot or two to a leaping Funchess (or Gardner) in the end zone. In any case, the future is bright, but I wouldn't exactly expect Funchess to produce like he did against AFA and UMass the rest of the way, even against the lowly Big Ten. Still, it is undoubtedly a relief for Borges to have a talent like Funchess in the arsenal.
The Other Guys
Drew Dileo has also been somewhat of a minor surprise. Despite lacking in size and top end speed, he has proven himself to be a reliable receiver when Denard has decided to look his way. You can even go back to last season, when Dileo made a huge 27-yard catch against the Buckeyes in the fourth quarter. It seems odd to say this about a 5'9'' guy with five receptions on the season, but Dileo really does catch most of what makes its way into his catching radius. Dileo pitched in a big 66-yarder against UMass, and although he had a quiet day against ND, he did deliver a clutch catch on fourth down against the Irish last Saturday. He will never be an exceptionally prolific receiver, but he is probably good for at least one important catch per game. I have a feeling that he will need to come up with these catches once we hit the home stretch of the schedule in November.
It feels weird sticking Roy Roundtree in the "other guys" section after the season he had in 2010, but this is the way things are in the post-RR world for our favorite Donald Duck impressionist. Roundtree has been having another mostly quiet season, although some of the blame for his demise is attributable to: a) the offense and b) Denard's passing in said offense. Roy has eight receptions and 72 yards (good for only 9.0 yards per catch) and a lone TD against UMass. He has clearly taken all of this in stride, as he continues to echo his "I'm a team player/I don't care about stats" philosophy that he busted out after getting only one reception against Notre Dame during the UTL game last season (of course, that one was a big one). On the bright side, Roy did have his best game of the season last week, reeling in three balls for 30 yards. I really feel bad for him, but Michigan will need him to continue to, hopefully, incrementally get some of that 2010 mojo back as the season goes along. The good thing is, there is probably only exceptionally physical secondary left on the schedule (MSU), which plays into Roundtree's game.
Jerald Robinson has received not insignificant levels of hype in the past but has yet to do much of anything on the field. He certainly looks the part of a Big Ten receiver but has for whatever reason not gotten it together on Saturdays. He has three catches for 39 yards on the year, and had one golden opportunity for a score against UMass bounce off of his fingertips because of an inability to adjust to the ball.
2012 Michigan Offense vs. UMass Every Snap (via presserbot)
Yes, it would have been a difficult catch, but the catch was there for the making until the UMass safety raked it away. I bought into a non-zero percentage of the offseason hype, but early returns indicate that Robinson is still not ready to make much of an impact.
Jeremy Jackson is a taller version of Jason Avant. Oh, sorry, was channeling the Jackson family pater familias there for a second. Jackson the Younger has a pair of grabs for 17 yards on the season. Like Jerald Robinson, I'm not sure that we can expect a whole lot from him the rest of the way.
As mentioned, the two VHT freshmen receivers, Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson, have yet to record a reception on the season. Darboh has played on special teams and apparently came in at wideout against Alabama, so no redshirt there.
Chesson, on the other hand, has yet to see the field is about 1,000% certain to receive a redshirt despite offseason praise of his height and speed. At 6'3'' 183, he will probably need another offseason of S&C and overall polish before we will get the chance to see him in a game.
There are still some serious questions to be answered here. Will Roy Roundtree ever become even half the receiver he was during his first two season? Will Devin Gardner develop at the rate that Michigan needs him to in order to have any sort of deep passing game? Can Jerald Robinson cash in on even an scintilla of the offseason recruiting hype (that may or may not have even been justified in the first place)? More questions? No, enough questions.
As for the positives, Devin Gardner has proven that he will at least be a contributor; whether he becomes an above average threat or just an extremely athletic guy still learning the ropes remains to be seen. Luckily, there's a lot of season left for Gardner to hone his craft.
Devin Funchess has been one of only a few bright spots in an offense that has largely been as erratic and self-destructive as Malfunctioning Eddie from Futurama.
Michigan's passing game
Gallon has been doing Gallon things, and Drew Dileo is carving out a niche as an infrequently used but important option for Denard. After that, things are pretty bleak. Once again, no discussion of the receivers is complete without mentioning the signal caller that is throwing them those passes. After showing some improvement in weeks two and three, albeit against weaker competition, Denard took an enormous step back last week in South Bend. No matter what the receivers do, if Denard cannot get them the ball in the right spots, all of the aforementioned questions are moot.