Donovan Peoples-Jones finally thought he had it.
Spotted at the Western Michigan 14-yard line with 9:59 remaining in the second quarter, the sophomore wide receiver caught a pass from junior quarterback Shea Patterson on an underneath crossing route, rounded the corner and lunged towards the pylon.
“I feel like I was in the endzone,” Peoples-Jones said, “but they called it and said I stepped out on the three or the four. I didn’t even feel myself step out.”
The elusive receiving touchdown had escaped Peoples-Jones through the first 14 games of his career. It’s escaped the entire receiving corps for the past 12 contests. So it’s easy to understand Peoples-Jones’ frustration on the play — hitting paydirt has been hard to come by.
Just over three minutes later in the quarter, sophomore wide receiver Nico Collins hauled in a 44-yard score to snap the drought, lifting the weight off the wide receivers’ shoulders. But Peoples-Jones — the No. 2 receiver in the 2017 recruiting class, according to 247Sports.com — had yet to find any luck.
At the 6:21 mark of the third quarter, though, that would change. Positioned at the Broncos’ five-yard line and Collins blanketed on the short slant, Patterson read his progressions and lofted the ball to Peoples-Jones at the back of the endzone just over the defensive back’s outstretched arm.
“That throw to Donovan was really good,” said coach Jim Harbaugh. “That wasn’t his first read. That was a long throw, from one sideline to the back corner endzone. And that one required some touch on it. But it had to get up and down quick before Donovan got out of bounds.
“That’s pretty high-level stuff.”
It was six points, but it also ushered in a new chapter for Peoples-Jones’s playing career, one that opens speculation for what he could become in his sophomore campaign — a capable route-runner that can create separation and high-point balls thrown his way.
“He’s way more physical now,” said sophomore defensive back Ambry Thomas. “And he knows that he’s not scared to use his strength and his speed.”
In the season opener against Notre Dame, his ceiling looked limited. Wide receivers’ coach Jim McElwain even thought his No. 1 receiver played too many snaps. Peoples-Jones gathered six receptions for just 38 yards, a byproduct of capping his routes to primarily comebacks and screens.
Peoples-Jones’ 2017 yardage came off similar plays, but he occasionally showed separation on deeper routes with few results to show. Saturday’s touchdown against Western Michigan could be just as much of an anomaly as it could be a routine, but high-level performaces are exactly what the Wolverines had expected Peoples-Jones to do consistently.
“Donovan ran a heck of a route to stem that inside and get to the back pylon,” Patterson said after the game. “… It’s kind of a routine throw.”
If it’s routine for Patterson and Peoples-Jones is the go-to guy, it could be a connection that happens more often on Saturdays. But the soft-spoken Peoples-Jones wouldn’t divulge what he thought his potential was or what kind of player he expects to be. He just knows he’s on track to answer the pressure that comes with the ballyhoo.
“More confidence, more focused, more experienced, more comfortable,” he said of his play.
As the No. 1 receiver with the toughest obstacles yet to come this season, it’s everything Michigan can hope for as it refines its offense.