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Michigan football 2020 spring preview: Wide Receivers

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There’s a lot of production up for grabs in the wide receiver room this year.

Maryland v Michigan Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

We know what the Michigan Wolverines are bringing to the field this spring as it pertains to the quarterback position and the running backs in the fold, but next up comes another group that will see a decent amount of change: the wide receiver room.

We are continuing to preview the position groups heading into the start of spring football on March 17. Today, let’s take a look at the pass catcher storylines that exist and will be on display through spring and fall camps.

Which (key) guys are gone?

Donovan Peoples-Jones (NFL Draft entry, 34 catches for 438 yards, six TD in 2019) and Tarik Black (transfer, 25 catches for 323 yards, TD), who were two-thirds of what was supposed to be one of college football’s elite wide receiver trios, are no longer with the team. Peoples-Jones leaves as a guy who was plenty talented, but never quite put up the elite numbers we thought he would while still being a valuable playmaker and kick returner. Black leaves as a player who had burst onto the scene early, but injuries and inconsistencies led to his departure from the program.

Who’s on campus for spring ball?

The Wolverines could have potentially lost a third wide receiver if Nico Collins (37 catches, 729 yards, seven TD had declared for the draft, but he chose to come back and hone his skills for one more season. The other scholarship guys who are set to participate in spring practice are leading receiver Ronnie Bell (48 catches, 758 yards, TD) and sophomores Mike Sainristil (8 catches, 145 yards, TD), Giles Jackson (9 catches, 142 yards, TD) and Cornelius Johnson (4 catches, 61 yards, TD).

Who’s joining later this summer?

True freshmen AJ Henning, Roman Wilson and Eamonn Dennis will be on campus in the summer. Henning and Wilson are both four-star prospects and and it would not be a surprise to see them figure into some early playing time in their freshman seasons.

Who will benefit the most from open opportunities?

There’s some production to replace here for sure. The easiest answer to this question is that Collins takes on a larger role as Michigan’s undisputed No. 1. At least, that might be how it should be. A few shots down the field in a game wasted a bit of his potential last year when the sample sizes and the results were so positive when they did so. Of course, letting the deep ball rip depends on your quarterback play and without kicking anyone on the way out the door, Shea Patterson’s deep ball accuracy left a lot to be desired. We’re not sure if Dylan McCaffrey or Joe Milton will be an upgrade in this regard, or heck, even on the same level as Patterson was. So that is a variable in all of this.

With a clear target on Collins’ back for opposing defenses next season (and presumably safety help over the top), Bell is a guy who figures to benefit from the extra attention. He, along wide the tight ends, should wind up being solid safety blankets for whomever wins the quarterback battle. Not to say that it does not seem possible that Bell takes a step forward, but he feels like the closest thing to a finished product that the Wolverines have at the position at the moment. He will be a stalwart for his final two seasons at Michigan and should continue to excel as a complimentary receiver.

It is in the young guys that there feels like might be the most intrigue here. Collins and Bell are what they are and may take a step forward, but there are opportunities a plenty for one of the most unproven position groups on the roster. Between Jackson (versatile), Sainristil (slot) and Johnson (size), the Wolverines have a trio of younger players that each bring something a little bit different to the table. Jackson in particular feels like a player that screams “matchup chess piece” and we already saw some of the wrinkles that offensive coordinator Josh Gattis unleashed later in the season. It’s going to be fun to see who fits where and how they develop in year two of “speed in space.”

The outlook

There’s a nice combination of experience and promise here, which is why it has never seemed as if the staff has lost much sleep over the idea of losing Peoples-Jones and Black. That’s not to say that they were not hoping the have as many talented bodies in the room as possible, but it speaks to how they feel about the young pieces and how they fit to what Gattis and Michigan want to do offensively.

And for a lot of guys, this is a blank slate. Collins and Bell in particular had two years to develop chemistry and a feel for playing with Patterson. With McCaffrey and Milton getting second and third team reps over the years and now being elevated up the pecking order alongside their young counterparts at wideout, it’s going to be interesting to see who emerges where.

Collins returning takes a lot of the question marks about this group off of the table. Had he also left, then we are probably looking at a much different (and potentially anxiety-inducing) situation here. But there is enough in this room to put the starting quarterback at ease with a few reliable targets and then plenty of potential for someone else to break out. This will be one of the more fun position groups to monitor in the spring.