Jim Harbaugh has brought in some talented names at wide receiver during his time at Michigan. Donovan Peoples-Jones, Nico Collins, Tarik Black, Kekoa Crawford, Cornelius Johnson and A.J. Henning and were all top-200 recruits who came in with tons of potential. The story is not over for a couple of them, the results have rarely lived up to expectations.
Perhaps the most successful player at the position came with the lowest hype.
Ronnie Bell was arguably the least notable member of the 2018 recruiting class, but that has not stopped him at all. The senior has led the Wolverines in receptions in back-to-back seasons and continues to be the reliable option for the carousel of quarterbacks on the roster.
The story so far
Most know how Bell, the 1473rd-ranked player in his class (not a typo), was a random basketball player in Missouri and ended up getting an offer from Michigan. He had a modest impact as a true freshman before blowing up in 2019, leading the team with 48 catches despite playing alongside Collins and Peoples-Jones.
This could be seen as an indictment of Shea Patterson and/or the coaching staff, but it should not diminish the importance of Bell. No one is arguing that he is more talented than some of the other receivers he has shared the field with, but there is a very tangible value in having such a dependable receiver. Bell has proven more than capable of doing whatever he is asked while being productive.
Bell has only found the end zone four times in his career despite all of his catches, perhaps due to the role he has played. He had an unfortunate drop in 2019’s loss at Penn State but overall has been solid. He is not the biggest target, but an accurate quarterback should not have trouble connecting with him. His 2020 numbers were modest with 26 catches and 401 yards over the six games, but both were easily the best marks on the team.
Bell will go down as a fan favorite no matter how the 2021 season goes. From off the recruiting radar to a team-leading receiver, he put up the numbers that his teammates were supposed to while embodying an attitude and spirit that was infectious across the fanbase. There have been plenty of misses at the wide receiver position under Harbaugh, but this has been a huge win.
Outlook moving forward
Bell is again in for a big responsibility, as Giles Jackson and Xavier Worthy will not be present in Ann Arbor. There are still some solid players around him, but as the clear elder statesman and the most experienced pass catcher, expect his number to be called early and often in 2021. A receiver that can play both inside and out is always going to get his targets. That makes Bell an especially perfect fit in this offense.
His versatility will come in handy regardless of who ends up taking the snaps at quarterback. Cade McNamara looks to be the guy for now, and he should be the most accurate passer Bell has played with. The two did not have outrageous numbers last fall, but the connection was certainly there. If J.J. McCarthy were to get the nod at some point, there is nothing more helpful to a freshman quarterback than a senior receiver.
Bell might be the easiest to project of all the players on the 2021 roster. He has an extremely secure floor and his role is written in pen. While it would be great to see players like Johnson, Henning, and Roman Wilson play so well that they take targets away from him, expect Bell to still end up hauling in the most catches yet again.
The most interesting storyline around Bell might be where he ends up lining up. While Johnson looks like a real threat on the outside, most of Michigan’s other receivers a shifty types that could work best out of the slot. Bell is not a typical jump-ball option, but he has a full route tree and can line up across the formation.
There have been losses at the receiver position, but the one constant seems to be Bell. The faces continue to change around him, but his consistency and production remain the same. The Michigan passing game must take a step forward next season, and look for Bell to be a big part of that, regardless of who ends up under center.