Fairly or not, much as has been expected of Donovan Peoples-Jones in his short time with the Michigan football team. The sophomore wide receiver came to Ann Arbor nearly two years ago as a five-star prospect and the highest-ranked member of the Wolverines’ 2017 recruiting class.
Despite ample playing opportunity, however, Peoples-Jones hadn’t played like it. He was Michigan’s fourth-leading receiver last season and averaged just 6.9 yards-per-catch to start 2018. Though it’s nothing to balk at, those numbers don’t exactly jump off the page.
But Peoples-Jones’ performance Saturday did: He made four catches for 90 yards and found the endzone on all three of the Wolverines’ passing touchdowns.
“He’s always been a super athletic guy, a freak athlete,” said redshirt junior tight end Zach Gentry. “Credit to him taking the next step to learning the playbook inside and out and perfecting his craft coming out of breaks and running his routes. He looks comfortable, and he’s doing a good job.”
Peoples-Jones joined Jehu Chesson, Braylon Edwards, Devin Funchess, Jeremy Gallon, Mario Manningham and David Terrell as the only Michigan players with three or more touchdown receptions in a game since 2000.
His first touchdown was a gift of the perfect play call. The Wolverines went double-play action — first faking to sophomore Ambry Thomas on a jet sweep, then to junior running back Tru Wilson — before Patterson saw that SMU had blown its coverage. Running a post route, Peoples-Jones was wide open and made no mistake finishing the play, racing to find the pylon for a 35-yard score.
“The post that Donovan ran from the slot (was) a terrific route,” Harbaugh said. “About as much separation you can get, really good (throw) by Shea right on the money, good protection on that one. Just like you drew it up.”
Though he was a decoy, Thomas was instrumental in the play’s development. After receiving his first career carry in the opening quarter, Michigan ran the same jet sweep action to get the Mustangs’ defense moving opposite People-Jones.
“(We ran) at least two maybe three runs earlier in the game to set that play up,” Harbaugh said. “It was a well-designed play and well executed.”
Peoples-Jones’ second touchdown, meanwhile, required much more skill. From the Mustangs’ seven yard-line, Patterson lofted an arching fade to Peoples-Jones, who adjusted in textbook fashion to corral the back-shoulder pass.
“That was a beautiful route, great catch and terrific throw,” Harbaugh said.
It’s the type of play that shows just how tallented Patterson is. Though he wasn’t as sharp as last week — he threw a pick at the goal line and should have been intercepted earlier in the first half — he again made high-level throws consistently, finishing 14-of-18 for 237 yards.
The longest of those attempts naturally went to Peoples-Jones. From the Mustangs’ 43-yard line, Peoples-Jones ran a go-route and simply burned SMU’s safety over the top to catch a perfect deep ball from Patterson.
“(Donovan’s) a freak athlete,” Patterson said. “He’s very smart, very fast, great football size to him. I know if I throw it up, there’s a lot of trust in him (to make the catch).”
Developing chemistry in the passing game is the epitome of a welcome sign for the Wolverines. Their receivers combined for just three touchdowns all last season — the mark Peoples-Jones met Saturday.
Last week, sophomore Nico Collins broke Michigan’s 364-day stretch without a wide receiver touchdown before Peoples-Jones caught his first-career score. And with Gentry — who made four catches for 95 yards Saturday — as well as sophomore Oliver Martin and fifth-year senior Grant Perry also contributing, the Wolverines’ passing attack is continuing to take shape.
“(Our rapport with Patterson) has grown a lot,” Gentry said. “It feels good to just spread the ball around, make plays in the passing game and have some statistics there. It’s improved every week since camp started.”
Peoples-Jones was nonetheless the clear redzone priority Saturday. He hasn’t lived up to his high school hype just yet, but Saturday was a reminder of Peoples-Jones’ talent and the time he still has to realize his potential.
“People forget he’s young,” Gentry said. “I remember coming in as a freshman, and there’s just no way (you can be really good). It’s just a whirlwind. I think him being so young, you see a big leap from the first year to the second year and so on.
“Three touchdowns in a day isn’t too bad.”