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The wide receivers: Michigan 2018 positional rundown

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We made it. The last position group. If the quarterback can throw to them, they’ll be solid to great.

NCAA Football: Air Force at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

We made it. After a month of reviewing tape, asking opposing sites about their teams and running down position groups, we have finally reached the last preview day. Next week, it’s game week.

Now, onto the Michigan wideouts. Technically, a receiver led the team in yards in 2017. The next two on the list were tight ends. No one had more than 307 yards on the year.

No surprise, but a position group with several freshmen that needed to adjust to three different quarterbacks...didn’t fare well. The No. 86 S&P pass offense ranking doesn’t do the ugliness justice.

Hope springs eternal, as two of those highly-touted freshmen return with legitimate promise, and senior Grant Perry continues to provide the steady hands, literally and figuratively. Concentrated coaching from Jim McElwain and grad assistant Roy Roundtree should yield better results, too.

Donovan Peoples-Jones, SO

Peoples-Jones arrived with a 5-star ranking and absurd athleticism, as he scored the top SPARQ score at Nike’s Opening Finals...AS A SOPHOMORE! With laser-timed 4.4 speed and the recruiting pedigree, fans expected much out of the true freshman.

The probability that a 5-star freshman reaches that promise is low. In the last decade, only about a third of those receivers gained more than 500 receiving yards in their debut seasons. The odds Peoples-Jones would reach that mark lowered with the cavalcade of issues from the 2017 offense.

Thus, he only tallied 22 catches for 277 yards with no touchdowns a year ago. He probably should have had at least one.

The toe is popping up just milliseconds before the other. It’s a catch.

Peoples-Jones admitted he struggled early with the minutiae of playing out wide.

“I’ve got to do what I have to do to get open,” Peoples-Jones said in November. “I have to do what I can to get into a spot where the quarterback can hit me. Get more separation. Working releases, getting open at the top of the route. Being more physical.”

That quote came after a one-catch dud against Maryland. He responded against a top-flight secondary in Wisconsin.

That’s him beating all-Big Ten corner Derrick Tindal over the top. With a slightly better throw, that’s a touchdown. After failing to make a catch against Ohio State, he emerged again as a consistent target in the Outback Bowl, hauling in a season-high six catches for 58 yards.

As nearly half of his receiving yards for the year came in the last three games, he finally seemed to be connecting his physical promise with the necessary technique. There’s little question of him starting this year, as Jim Harbaugh called him the best receiver during the spring.

Oh, he’s a dangerous punt returner, as well. Just ask Ohio State or Air Force.

Tarik Black, RS FR

If Peoples-Jones possessed the most talent last year, Black knew how to tap into his sooner. He started the year with a bang against Florida.

That’s a 6-foot-3 receiver loping down the field and gaining separation from an SEC secondary — one that was top 30 in S&P pass defense. He injured his foot against Air Force, however, which sidelined him for remainder of the year.

Before sitting, he snagged 11 balls for 149 yards and the above touchdown. That means he was on pace for 48 catches for 645 yards, or more than double than Grant Perry. He returns this year with a chip on his shoulder.

“I always feel like (I have something to prove),” Black said this spring. “No matter how good my performance was, I still feel like I have to prove myself.”

The fact he was made available to the media this week shows trust in the rising sophomore. He led a discussion on creating cohesion with newly-minted starter Shea Patterson.

“Just being able to go out with Shea and get the timing and things like that right,” he said to The Michigan Insider. “Just continue to sync up with him is very important. We get into the scramble phase where one guy goes deep and the other guy comes down. Just getting into different parts of the field. We’ve been working on it.”

He and Peoples-Jones seem locked in as starters on the outside. At their best, Peoples-Jones resembles Braylon Edwards while Black gives off an Adrian Arrington vibe.

Grant Perry, SR

Michigan’s passing offense last year was a parade of security blankets for mediocre to awful quarterbacks. This explains Perry leading the Wolverines in receiving in 2017.

With that said, Perry has proven his ability during his Michigan career, reliably catching 52 passes for 618 yards and three touchdowns in three seasons. He specializes in securing tight throws, like this early first-down conversion against Michigan State.

He even flashed some impressive burst in his lone touchdown against Cincinnati.

You know what you get with Perry. He’s decidedly smaller than his outside compatriots, but will catch anything in his radius and keep the chains moving. That is, if he isn’t interfered with...

Jim Harbaugh did say Perry was, “arguably playing better than anybody,” during his Attack Each Day podcast last week (32:30).

The backups

With the departures of Kekoa Crawford and Eddie McDoom, the wide receiver depth took a hit this summer. However, talented underclassmen and walk-ons bolster the ranks.

Nico Collins garnered the second-most praise from Harbaugh.

“There’s a couple of other names we’re going to keep under the radar now,” he said at the 32:45 mark of his podcast. “They’re really coming on. We’re waiting for them to stack multiple days to make sure it’s real.”

A few sources inside the program indicated one of these players was indeed Collins, which was corroborated by Isaiah Hole of The Wolverine Wire.

The 6-foot-4, 218-pound sophomore from Birmingham, Ala. figures to be a red-zone asset. He grabbed three catches for 27 yards as a freshman in 2017.

The other scholarship receiver on the outside should be freshman and former Missouri State basketball commit Ronnie Bell. The little-scouted 3-star from Kansas City has already made waves with physical tools.

“He can jump out of the gym,” Perry said to The Michigan Insider. “He goes and gets the jump balls. He’s explosive, too. Really fast, good hands. And he’s picked the playbook up really well, really fast. You tell him something and he does it right. That’s good to see.”

With the dwindling depth, the 6-footer may see some spot snaps this fall. At a slight 182 pounds, he may need another offseason with Ben Herbert before fully seeing the field. For comparison, Peoples-Jones, Black and Collins all weigh well over 200 pounds.

The first backup at slot receiver is Iowa redshirt freshman Oliver Martin. He made waves last summer for some filthy catches.

Martin checks in at 6-foot-1, 200 pounds, and ran a laser-timed 4.5 40-yard dash at the 2017 Opening Finals. He’s not Martavius Odoms slot gremlin, nor is he your stereotypical and boringly efficient Northwestern caucasian receiver — hello, Flynn Nagel.

His size allows him to play outside, as well, but since his emergence presumably pushed out McDoom, he’s needed inside for any semblance of depth.

Nate Schoenle and Jake McCurry are your gritty walk-ons. The former made a splash in last year’s spring game, setting up the game-winning field goal for Team Maize.

7:15 for Brandon Peters to Schoenle (#81).

The 6-foot-2 junior graduated from Ann Arbor Gabriel Richard, and actually produced better than Collins last year — four catches for 41 yards.

McCurry, meanwhile, generated some surprising hype this summer.

The 6-foot, 185-pounder from Solon, Ohio is following a similar trajectory to Schoenle, who drew some buzz after 2017 spring practice. Expect a similar deployment, as Schoenle made seven tackles on special teams last year.

McCurry will likely get a smattering of snaps on both offense and special teams, as well.

Final thoughts

While not perfect, the receivers weren’t as bad last year as the final stats made it seem. A passing offense requires several moving parts to click, and bad pass-blocking combined with poor quarterback play to exacerbate issues.

Without piling on John O’Korn, if you rewatch his games in their entirety, you will see many missed reads on wide-open targets. With Shea Patterson, or even a more-experienced Brandon Peters, this unit will shine.

There’s too much talent — three 4-stars and a 5-star from the 2017 haul — for it not to succeed, otherwise. The fact that some stabilizing options are emerging beyond simply Perry adds to that confidence.