With deep receiving corps, Michigan looks for third breakout star
After nearly 20 minutes of questions about his team’s ongoing quarterback competition at the Wolverines’ team media day Sunday, Michigan passing game coordinator Jedd Fisch broke into a wide grin when a reporter finally broached the subject of his other position group.
“Thank you for that question,” Fisch said, barely exaggerating his excitement. “All these questions about quarterbacks all the time — we’ve got pretty good receivers around here!”
Though the Wolverines’ receiving corps still has no idea who will be throwing them the ball this season — whether it be redshirt sophomore Wilton Speight, redshirt junior John O’Korn, or even redshirt junior Shane Morris — the group is strong at the top and, more importantly, deeper than it has been in years.
Fresh off a season in which he led Michigan with 58 catches, fifth-year senior Amara Darboh has ridden what Fisch called “an incredible offseason” to take the lead as the No. 1 receiver. Fellow fifth-year senior Jehu Chesson — who would have been right in the conversation if he hadn’t partially torn his posterior cruciate ligament at the very end of last season — is now fully healthy and will line up opposite Darboh, looking to top his breakout 2015 season in which he tallied a team-high 764 yards and nine touchdowns.
“I think going into last year at this time, we didn’t have many conversations about Jehu,” Fisch said. “The way he evolved, the way he developed, how hard he worked and what he ended up doing for our program — on special teams, on offense, running the football on some reverses and sweeps, and as a leader? Unbelievable.”
Adding in senior All-American tight end Jake Butt, the Wolverines’ top three targets are set in stone. But with a spot as a third receiver up for grabs and plenty of young talent on the roster, Fisch’s lesser-scrutinized position group remains extremely competitive.
According to Fisch, the receiver to beat heading into fall camp is sophomore Grant Perry. Despite starting off last season struggling to get on the same page as then-starting quarterback Jake Rudock, Perry recovered to finish his freshman campaign with 14 catches and 128 yards — not overwhelming numbers, but by far the most production of any wide receiver not named Darboh or Chesson.
Perry’s spot is far from guaranteed, though. According to Fisch and Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh, junior Moe Ways was having a stellar spring camp before breaking his foot, and he is now healthy again for fall camp, so he could be ready to pick up where he left off in March.
“I’m hoping that I can be that next guy,” Ways said. “I’m working toward that, and I think just with hard work and getting better every day, that goal is attainable.”
And redshirt sophomore Drake Harris, once a highly touted recruit who has suffered through a slew of injuries to his hamstrings and ankle, will be looking to take on a bigger role as well.
With the top two receivers having set the standard, their less-established counterparts see no reason why they can’t be the Wolverines’ next breakout star.
“Our coaches put us in situations to make those plays and get those numbers that (Darboh and Chesson) had last year,” Harris said. “Seeing that and knowing I’ll be in that position once they leave, and trying to fill that third wide receiver spot (this year), I’m excited.”
If no veteran receiver steps up, Michigan also has plenty of new faces with high potential. Freshman Ahmir Mitchell enrolled early last winter and turned some heads with his play when the Wolverines traveled to Florida for practice during spring break. Additionally, a fresh crop of talented receivers arriving in the fall — including Kekoa Crawford and Eddie McDoom — could mean that someone will follow Perry’s lead and earn immediate playing time.
Much like at quarterback, the competition for the third wide receiver slot remains wide open. And with increased expectations for the team as a whole — Michigan checked in at No. 8 in the preseason coaches’ poll last week — no one is taking the battle lightly.
“I feel like there’s always gonna be expectations coming from Michigan,” Harris said. “When you’re one of the top teams in the country, coaches are expecting you to go out there and do big things on the field.
“There’s gonna be tons of competition. We have a lot of depth, and obviously Jehu and Darboh have their spots, but that third wide receiver position is open and someone needs to step in there and take it.”