The Michigan Wolverines will not have senior wide receiver and captain Ronnie Bell on the field the rest of this season. You do not replace someone who brings what he does from a leadership standpoint, as well as the pure talent he has shown in four years in Ann Arbor. It has to come by committee.
Jim Harbaugh and the Wolverines have their work cut out for them here, but the story is still in the early stages of being written for this group. There is time to figure it out, but it is a quick and sudden change that needs to be accounted for quickly.
Here are three ways Michigan will look to move forward without him.
Wide receiver room stepping up
Losing Bell is brutal, but if Michigan were to lose someone from a position group, this might be the one to do it from. Cornelius Johnson, Mike Sainristil, AJ Henning, Roman Wilson, Daylen Baldwin, Andrel Anthony and Cristian Dixon will all be counted on as a unit to step in and replace the production lost by Bell.
The biggest issue is that there is not a ton of career production here. Baldwin is the most productive career wideout with 58 receptions, though only a single one at Michigan (a 69-yard touchdown on Saturday). Johnson (22 career catches) and Sainristil (16 catches) are the next-most experienced players. Wilson and Henning have 9 and 7 career catches, respectively. Bell had 75 catches over his last 20 games played, which is a little under four receptions per game. The guys above, along with Erick All and the tight ends, should be able to step in for that production.
The biggest question is who can run good routes and separate down the field. There’s plenty of speed in the room — hello, Henning and Wilson — so there have to be steps forward there. Bell was also a willing blocker and participant in the run game, so the guys that will get on the field will be the ones who are active and welcome contact. Sainristil had a great game on Saturday in that area.
Michigan wants to run the football and did so to great success on Saturday. Teams are going to get a steady diet of Blake Corum and Hassan Haskins all season with doses of Donovan Edwards. One would assume they will double down on this mentality and their success here could keep defenses honest and open the door for an efficient passing game led by Cade McNamara.
It would be foolish to think that the Wolverines will have the type of success on the ground that they did against Western Michigan all season. If you’re as good as they hope to be there, sometimes it does not matter what a defense does to stop it. Being able to successfully run the football is going to make things easier on everyone, but defenses might not make it that simple. This leads us to our next point.
A defining stretch for Josh Gattis
Michigan’s offensive coordinator is about to enter the defining stretch of his young career. There is a ton of pressure on him in his third year on the job and losing one of your star players cranks that pressure up a bit.
Because Michigan has outwardly said it wants to run the ball this year and the success it had on Saturday, teams are going to start loading the box and challenging them to throw the ball. Gattis has a rap sheet of developing wide receivers in his career and not only does he need to do that now, but he also has to put all of his chess pieces in a position to succeed. Stubbornness is not going to get anyone anywhere. Michigan had to zig when the defense zags and that test begins on Saturday.
Gattis also has to find ways to get his burners the football with nothing but green grass in front of them. That’s where wideouts like Henning and Wilson can help the most, as we saw in Week 1. Creativity was always going to define Michigan’s offensive success this year. Now, it becomes even more critical if they want to be a balanced, efficient and explosive unit this year.
Michigan’s first game without Bell will come on Saturday night against the Washington Huskies. The game is set for an 8 p.m. ET kickoff and will be nationally televised via ABC. Michigan is currently a 6.5-point favorite per FanDuel.