- Marissa McClain/Daily
By Zach Helfand, Daily Sports Editor
Published April 14, 2012
There is a photograph on the wall of Roy Roundtree’s bedroom. A reminder, he calls it, of the greatest moment of his career.
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The photograph shows an airborne Roundtree, then a redshirt junior, catching the game-winning pass with just four seconds left on the clock against Notre Dame last September.
The photo is a reminder of something else, too, a reminder of why his hands are sore every day, of why he spends as much time at practice catching tennis balls as he does footballs.
There are other iconic photos of Michigan receivers. Desmond Howard remains suspended in midair, also against Notre Dame, ready to cradle the most famous reception of his career in his outstretched hands. Braylon Edwards is out-leaping a Michigan State defender to catch the game-winning pass in 2004 to cap a 17-point fourth-quarter comeback.
Again, in Edwards’ snapshot, he’s plucking the ball out of the air using his hands.
That’s where Roundtree’s differs. In Roundtree’s, the ball is trapped rather awkwardly between his wrists and his chest, a no-no for receivers.
And that, Michigan coach Brady Hoke said after Saturday’s Spring Game, is where Roundtree has made the biggest strides this offseason.
“(Roy) has really improved a lot,” Hoke said. “He’s catching the ball away from his body better just throughout the spring.”
Hoke also mentioned route running as an area of improvement, as Roundtree develops into the Wolverines' most dangerous and reliable receiving option. The route running comes from maturity and experience in offensive coordinator Al Borges’ offense. The hands, well, that takes more work.
As Howard said after Saturday's game, “Someone here asked a question. 'Is that just something that comes with getting a year older?' Nah, it doesn’t happen that way. You can be a year older next year, you try catching it away from your body if you’re not comfortable with it now.”
Catching away from the body is important not only to limit drops, but to lead to more yards after the catch. Howard said catching with the hands allows receivers to maintain their speed after a reception.
To emphasize catching passes with the hands, every receiver has worked with a machine that flings tennis balls after every practice this spring. Receivers like Roundtree can’t trap tennis balls. If they want to make the catch, they have to use their hands.
“I feel like it has really helped all of us,” Roundtree said, noting that the balls often come in at 60 miles per hour. “It’s coming. It’s really coming. So it’s something you gotta get used to, but once you calm down and actually time it up and actually watch the ball hit your hands, it really slows everything down.”
With the graduation of Junior Hemmingway — last year’s leader in nearly all statistical categories among receivers — and Darryl Stonum’s explusion from the team, Roundtree must develop into a threat for senior quarterback Denard Robinson to have success through the air. Robinson said he already benefits from Roundtree’s versatility. He is equally effective as the slot receiver and split out wide.
Robinson also said that Roundtree’s attitude makes him a leader on the team.
“He’s one of those guys that keeps the team together,” Robinson said. “When everything’s going bad, he’s going to tell everyone, ‘Look, your next play is your best play.’ He always tells me that. Even if I have a bad throw to him, he was like, ‘The next play is the best play.’
“And even last year, when he didn’t have as much catches as he had the year before, he talked to me (and) told me, ‘As long as we’re winning, that’s the only thing that counts to me.’ ”
But this year, winning will require more out of Roundtree, whose production plummeted last season. In 2010, Roundtree was the team’s leading receiver, hauling in 72 receptions for 935 yards and seven touchdowns. Last year? Just 355 yards on 19 catches.
That’s why what little the fans got to see of the Robinson-Roundtree battery on Saturday was encouraging. Robinson threw just three passes before getting yanked, but on one, he connected with Roundtree for a 10-yard gain.
On that play, just the second of the game, Robinson rolled out to his right, waiting for Roundtree to make his break.
At the first-down marker, Roundtree did, working back to Robinson and the sideline.