It’s hard to deny there has been a greater wide receiver/tight end trio during Jim Harbaugh’s tenure as Michigan football’s head coach than the one he had from 2015-16 with Jehu Chesson, Amara Darboh and Jake Butt.
Butt was a First-Team All-American and won the John Mackey Award for the nation’s best tight end in 2016. He was also a two-time First-Team All-Big Ten player from 2015-16. Meanwhile, Chesson was a First-Team All-Big Ten player in 2015 and Darboh was on the Second-Team in 2016.
All three were selected in the 2017 NFL Draft and are looked at as some of the better offensive weapons to come through Ann Arbor in quite some time.
The Wolverines have not been able to find a tight end come even close to Butt’s level of production since he left. The wide receivers have been good, but also have not topped Chesson or Darboh, in my mind at least. But if there are three guys who could do that in 2020, it’s Nico Collins, Ronnie Bell and Nick Eubanks.
The trio are the top returning pass-catchers for Michigan. Bell led the team in receptions (48) and receiving yards (758) in 2019. Despite only having one touchdown, Bell was one of Michigan’s most reliable receivers and moved the chains time and time again.
Collins put up a stellar junior campaign, catching 37 passes for 729 yards and seven touchdowns. Meanwhile. Eubanks led the way at tight end with 25 catches for 243 yards and four touchdowns. These two could have declared for the 2020 draft, but decided to come back for one final season.
Heading into the 2016 season, there was a lot of hype for Chesson, Darboh and Butt after combining for 159 catches for 2,145 yards and 17 touchdowns in 2015. Last year, the current trio of Bell, Collins and Eubanks combined for 110 catches, 1,730 yards and 12 touchdowns.
So, according to my handy dandy computer calculator, the 2015 trio had 415 more yards but also had 49 more catches. In my mind, that makes the numbers even more impressive for the current trio having a lot of yards on not nearly as many catches.
A reason the 2015 trio had so many more catches is because Butt, Darboh and Chesson were the team’s only three reliable pass-catching options — Michigan’s fourth-leading receiver was De’Veon Smith, a running back not known for catching many passes. In 2019, Shea Patterson also had Donovan Peoples-Jones, Tarik Black, Giles Jackson and Mike Sainristil to throw the ball to, so he had a lot more options than Jake Rudock did.
So how did the Chesson-Darboh-Butt trio do in 2016 with Wilton Speight? As you may remember, the three led Michigan in receiving that season as well. Darboh led the way with 862 yards and seven touchdowns on 57 catches, an absolute monster senior year. Butt caught 46 passes for 546 yards and four touchdowns, while Chesson caught 35 passes for 500 yards and two touchdowns.
In total, they caught 138 passes for 1,908 yards and 13 touchdowns — a slight dip from the 2015 numbers, but still good.
Heading into 2020, should we expect another solid output from Bell, Collins and Eubanks like the past trio saw in 2016, or should we expect more out of them? I don’t think it’s out of the realm of possibilities the current trio can top the numbers set in 2019, but I would temper any expectations because of the talent at wide receiver and tight end compared to what Michigan had when Butt, Chesson and Darboh were around.
At wide receiver, the Wolverines have the aforementioned Collins, Bell, Jackson and Sainristil, as well as Cornelius Johnson and incoming true freshmen Roman Wilson, A.J. Henning and Eamonn Dennis. To go with Eubanks, they have Erick All, Luke Schoonmaker and incoming true freshman Matthew Hibner.
Michigan is loaded at the skill positions heading into 2020. Even if Collins, Bell and Eubanks don’t put up better numbers than they did a season ago, Michigan will have plenty of guys to throw the ball to.
This all also depends on how the quarterback position plays out for Michigan. If Dylan McCaffrey/Joe Milton is an upgrade over Patterson — which I hope for Michigan’s sake one of them is — the current trio would have a good chance of taking a step forward. If the starting quarterback is at the same level, or *gulp* worse than Patterson, I wouldn’t expect the trio to put up much higher numbers, if at all.
Can Collins, Bell and Eubanks topple their 2019 numbers and leap ahead of the best trio under Harbaugh in Chesson, Darboh and Butt? It’ll be challenging with all the weapons the Wolverines, and I can’t say with confidence they will given the the uncertainty at quarterback. For now, I would hold off on any expectations and wait and see how it plays out, but they absolutely have the talent to do so.