Editor’s Note: With the Michigan football team’s 2015 regular season in the books, the Daily looks back at the performance of each unit this year and looks ahead to the future in 2016. In this edition: wide receivers and tight ends.
When Devin Funchess forewent his senior season and declared for the NFL Draft last spring, he left a gaping hole in the Michigan football team’s receiving corps. Funchess caught 62 passes for 733 yards and four touchdowns in 2014. The Wolverines’ top returning receiver, redshirt junior Amara Darboh, caught 36 passes for 473 yards and two touchdowns.
Going into 2015, Michigan had talent, albeit unproven talent. The wide receivers faced a tough task this summer forming chemistry with fifth-year senior quarterback Jake Rudock, a graduate transfer from Iowa. Rudock and the receivers shared criticism in the early part of the season for struggling to connect on long passes downfield. But both improved as the season went on, and three consistent pass-catching threats emerged by the end of the year.
Darboh led the team in receptions and yards, and Chesson was first with eight receiving touchdowns. Each had breakout games, and each made highlight-reel plays. Like Rudock, they were average in the beginning but slowly improved, thanks in part to passing game coordinator Jedd Fisch, who came over from the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars in the offseason.
Perhaps a bigger storyline was Michigan’s emphasis on tight ends this season under first-year coach Jim Harbaugh. Harbaugh made the position a staple of his offense at Stanford and with the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers, and even without time to mold the roster to his liking, he made tight ends useful in his first season.
Junior tight end Jake Butt became the third receiving threat. He had one of his best games in the season opener at Utah, catching eight passes for 93 yards and a touchdown. He then tailed off before later becoming Rudock’s safety valve down the stretch.
The Wolverines’ weakness at wide receiver, though, was depth. The third-best wideout by yardage was freshman Grant Perry with 77. Outside the three top receivers, only junior running back De’Veon Smith and senior tight end A.J. Williams surpassed 100 yards on the season, though Michigan did have 19 players in total catch a pass.
HIGH POINT: Of the receivers’ five 100-yard performances, two came at Indiana on Nov. 14. While the Hoosiers racked up points with their no-huddle spread offense, the Wolverines matched them with a newfound, high-powered passing attack. Chesson caught 10 passes for 207 yards and four touchdowns — the latter tying a school record. Darboh added eight receptions for 109 yards and the game-winning 25-yard score in the second overtime.
The unit also started off the season strong at Utah, where Darboh and Butt each pulled in eight receptions.
LOW POINT: The unit never truly struggled, but the second and third games of the season against Oregon State and UNLV provided a lull. In both wins, Chesson, Darboh and Butt combined for fewer than 100 yards — 89 against the Beavers and 60 against the Rebels — and did not find the end zone while the rushing attack carried the offense.
The trio rebounded with a combined 115 yards and a touchdown against Brigham Young the following week and later scored 13 times in the last five games of the season.
THE FUTURE: If Michigan can avoid attrition at receiver, the Wolverines should be in great shape for next season. Almost all of their contributors have eligibility remaining.
Butt announced this week that he will return for his senior season, and Chesson and Darboh, both redshirt juniors, should be back for fifth years, though Chesson may decide to test the NFL waters.
After that, there’s room for development. Redshirt freshman Ian Bunting and redshirt sophomores Henry Poggi and Khalid Hill will each have another year of experience under their belts at tight end. Williams is the only notable departure.
Perry and redshirt freshman Maurice Ways can also continue to grow, and four-star recruits Brad Hawkins and Ahmir Mitchell will be on campus as well. Harbaugh didn’t make wide receivers a focal point this season, but he will have the opportunity to do so if the development continues.