Eleven months after breaking his left foot in a win over Air Force, redshirt freshman wide receiver Tarik Black was dealt another blow this week.
Black, who figured to take charge as the team’s pre-eminent receiving threat this season, suffered a fracture in his right foot in practice, mere days before the season opener against Notre Dame this Saturday.
“He’ll be out for some weeks,” said Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh. “He has a right foot injury. Got one fixed last year, and a very similar injury this year to the other foot.”
Harbaugh confirmed the injury was a fracture, but when asked whether Black would undergo surgery said, “(Black is) being evaluated right now.”
In three games last season, Black tallied 11 catches for 149 yards, including a 46-yard touchdown in the season opener against Florida. Despite playing in just three games, those 11 receptions still amounted to a tie for the seventh most on the team, and his 149 yards were just 158 shy of then-junior wide receiver Grant Perry for the season-long team lead.
There was real promise early on that he could breakthrough as a true freshman. In a season that portends better quarterback play, Black figured to spearhead a resurgent wide receivers group. That is now on hold.
From a personal standpoint, his teammates reacted with the type of empathy you might expect.
“That was heartbreaking,” said junior linebacker Devin Bush. “A guy that got hurt last year, sat out the whole season, worked his butt off the whole offseason — extra therapy, extra weights. Just to get hurt, what, six days before the game? Man, you kinda just feel for him, it’s kinda hard to look in his face and tell him everything’s gonna be alright, to keep your head up.”
Perry said he spoke with Black after the injury, imploring him to stay positive.
On the field, though, players and coaches are trying to embody the cliche of “next man up.” That man, specifically, seems to be Nico Collins.
Collins has the recruiting pedigree, a four-star out of Alabama; the athletic build, at 6-foot-5, 220 pounds; and enough experience, having played in a limited role at the end of last year, to fill that void. And by all accounts, he is turning heads at practice.
“He just seems to be catching everything,” said junior tackle Ben Bredeson. “I’m no wide receivers coach here, but it seems like whenever we’re getting in the red zone or something like that, we need a touchdown, Nico seems to be the guy that’s getting it for us.”
That latter note holds outsized importance. If this offense is to take its necessitated leap — or at least some incremental improvement — it must first look to the red zone.
Last season, Michigan scored a touchdown on just 23 of its 44 red zone attempts (52 percent). Just five of those 23 came via a passing touchdown. Without much of a passing threat, it’s no wonder the Wolverines had to settle for field goals; Collins and fellow sophomore Donovan Peoples-Jones are two guys who can help fix that.
The Black injury is a massive blow to the group, but it is not a death knell. Last year, Black returned for bowl practice in December and said he could have been ready for the bowl game — though the coaching staff ultimately decided against it, largely in order to apply for a redshirt season.
Based on that timetable, Black could be back on the field for the latter part of Big Ten play, though it is too early to speculate as to when, especially with a decision regarding surgery looming.
But Perry expressed confidence, regardless of Black’s status this season, in the rest of the unit.
“That’s a really tough loss. My heart’s out to him, I know that’s tough for him,” Perry said. “I know whoever’s gonna step up — Nico, Donovan, (Nate) Schoenle, one of those guys, Oliver (Martin) — they’re going to do it really well. Because we’re all prepared. We’re all ready.”