It’s pretty obvious over the first five weeks of the season the Michigan Wolverines have struggled to move the ball through the air. Josh Gattis and Shea Patterson have been under much scrutiny for their under-utilization of the team’s best position group: the receiving unit.
The guys everyone thought were set for big years — Donovan Peoples-Jones, Nico Collins and Tarik Black — all have under 15 receptions and less than 275 yards individually. That means each of those All-Big Ten talents are averaging less than three receptions a game.
The No. 1 target for Patterson and the Michigan offense this year has been Ronnie Bell. Bell has 17 receptions for 263 yards this season, and has been all over the field. Lots of the dinks and dunks we have seen from the offense have gone to a streaking Bell to try and replicate the Speed in Space Gattis promised. Jim Harbaugh even went out and said Bell was the most improved player on the offensive side of the ball.
The problem is now that there has been a couple weeks of video on the Wolverines’ new offense, teams have begun to scheme against it. Bell was held to 0 receptions against Iowa, although he didn’t see a lot of playing time after taking a pretty big hit in the first quarter of the game.
At this point, the Wolverines are getting desperate to put the pieces together and create a coherent offense. Even though Harbaugh said the offense is close to “hitting their stride” and Patterson said on Tuesday it will “take off,” I’ll believe it when I see it. If Bell is going to be a key component of this newly invigorated offense, he needs to have a big day against what is a mediocre Illinois football team.
Getting him and the rest of the receivers involved will be crucial if the Wolverines want to put together a run against one of the most difficult remaining schedules in the country.
The man who will try to shut Bell down is Illinois cornerback Nate Hobbs. While the majority of the Illini’s secondary is sub-par, Hobbs is a pretty solid player and is certainly the best of the group. With the targets, receptions, size and speed Bell has, Hobbs should be the perfect defensive counterpart.
Both Hobbs and Bell are 6-foot and right around 190 pounds. They are also both known for their blazing speed that has given them reps as kick and punt returners.
Hobbs, a junior, has been a benchmark of this Illinois defense in 2019 and has been one of the few bright spots fans have enjoyed so far this year. He did go down with what looked like an ankle sprain in Illinois’ 40-17 loss to Minnesota, but no word has come on his status for Saturday’s game against Michigan.
If he plays, it should be a great matchup of two players with a very similar skill set in what should be a blow out victory for the Wolverines.