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Preseason positional grades: Michigan still waiting for an elite WR to break out

It’s put up or shut up time for several Wolverines at wideout.

Michigan v Nebraska Photo by Steven Branscombe/Getty Images

Under Jim Harbaugh, the Michigan Wolverines have developed very few elite wide receivers. Yes, Ronnie Bell was a massive success story going from a two-star recruit to a third-round draft pick, but it feels like right around this time every year we are discussing the wide receiver room in this way.

With Bell gone, J.J. McCarthy will be looking for a new favorite receiver and as of now, his options for elite talent seem limited. Optimists will say it is a by-product of the Michigan scheme, but there are several skeptics as the Wolverines move to a closer to 50-50 run-pass system with their stud quarterback.

As we approach the 2023 campaign, this unit has the most questions to be answered, and it isn’t really close.

Wide Receivers - Grade: C

  • Starters: Roman Wilson, Cornelius Johnson, Tyler Morris
  • Backups: Darrius Clemons, Peyton O’Leary, Cristian Dixon,
  • New Faces: Semaj Morgan, Frederick Moore, Karmello English

It really feels like someone in this room needs to break out this season for Michigan to win the National Championship. My brain just keeps going back to Quentin Johnston taking it 76 yards to the house on third-and-seven in the third quarter of the College Football Playoff loss to TCU. It was a big-time player making a big-time play in the biggest game of the year. He’d finished with six receptions for 163 yards and that touchdown.

Or even look at the other CFP game, where Emeka Egbuka and Marvin Harrison Jr. tallied a combined 218 yards and three touchdowns for the Buckeyes against Georgia. If Harrison Jr. hadn’t gone down in that game, Ohio State may have won the National Championship.

The biggest ridicule of McCarthy throughout last season was he couldn’t connect on deep passes. Part of that was inaccurate passes, but it was also just not being on the same page with his receivers, or the wideouts just flat-out losing 50/50 balls. That’s something that has to change for the Wolverines to take that next step.

From a talent perspective, I think there is a chance Roman Wilson can be one of those upper-echelon receivers. He has game-changing speed and has made some very important plays in his career.

When the ball is in his hands, there is a high probability he’s getting a big gain. If he can improve on his route-running and release, I think he could get to similar production or even surpass what Bell did last season. If there is going to be a guy that approaches stardom in 2023, my bet is on Wilson.

The problem is he hasn’t been able to stay healthy. He’s missed games in 2021 and 2022 due to various injuries. For Michigan to have a better shot at success in the air in 2023, he has to be on the field because there is little experienced depth behind him.

Then comes the anomaly that is Cornelius Johnson. Credit where it is due, Johnson came up huge against Ohio State with his two long touchdowns contributing to his 160 yards in The Game. But after that, he was a combined three receptions for 39 yards against in the Big Ten Championship and the College Football Playoff semifinal. If it weren’t for his big day at OSU, he would have had less than 400 yards the whole season.

A big reason for that is because at 6-foot-3, Johnson should be winning more jump balls. He has also had problems with drops throughout his career; he had six of them in 2022 on 62 targets. An almost 10 percent drop rate just can’t happen if you want to be a top receiver.

Johnson has shown flashes, but the Wolverines need to see week-in and week-out consistency from him.

With A.J. Henning and Andrel Anthony transferring out, the rest of the players who expect to receive playing time has a combined five career receptions for 47 yards. I think Tyler Morris has an edge to claim WR3 because of the relationship he has with McCarthy. The two grew up together in Illinois and have spent quite a bit of time on the field with one another. Earlier this month, wide receiver coach Ron Bellamy compared Morris to the recently departed Bell on the In The Trenches Podcast:

He gives you the Ronnie Bell vibes. Tyler is his own man, but you see that No. 8 has been around Michigan football a long time and now to see T-Mo in the No. 8 (Morris switched from 13 to 8 this offseason) and making some of those acrobatic Ronnie Bell catches or jumping over someone to go catch a contested ball. I remember one day, coach and I looked at each other. ‘It’s like Ronnie Bell!’ And he has that junkyard dog mentality. ‘I’m gonna do anything, coach. I can go run a dig knowing I’m gonna get hit. I’m gonna go in there and block the end, I’m gonna go block a backer. Go get the safety.’ Whatever it is, Tyler is that kind of guy. He’s scrappy, and that’s one of the things we love about him.

While that is encouraging to hear, he’ll need to make massive strides quickly for Michigan’s passing attack to be at the level it needs to be.

Peyton O’Leary is a wildcard here. There is a chance he comes out of camp as the starter after a really impressive spring game. The coaches have sang his praises the last two offseasons, so there is a possibility we see a lot more of him in 2023.

Everyone remembers 6-foot-3 Darrius Clemons’ touchdown in the 2022 spring game. He’s a grown man that could be a difference-maker, but we just haven’t seen enough of him to go either way about it.

Cristian Dixon is in a similar boat; he’s a big-bodied guy who hasn’t done much in his career. He seems to be behind both Clemons and Johnson for that large target role.

True freshmen Semaj Morgan, Frederick Moore and Karmello English will likely redshirt this season, but the coaching staff has been very fond of them in the early stages of their Michigan careers. Maybe one could have a single-game performance like Andrel Anthony did against Michigan State a couple seasons ago.

There’s a lot to like in this receiver room behind the obvious starters, but the question everyone needs to be asking is: Is it enough to win a National Championship? Certainly, there is hope, but a lot has to go right for them to take that necessary step.