COLLEGE PARK — During the Michigan football team’s trip to Wisconsin in October, Donovan Edwards had a golden opportunity to make a game-changing play.
Streaking down the far sideline after a wheel route, he had a step on his defender. But by the time junior quarterback Cade McNamara noticed, he needed time to pivot and swivel his hips. His high-arcing throw arrived a half-second too late, and after getting tipped by a Badger defensive back, it slipped through Edwards’ chest.
But when the Wolverines targeted Edwards on the same route in College Park on Saturday, they got the result they were looking for more than a month ago. Edwards slipped out of pass protection and ran an identical wheel route. He beat the Maryland secondary down the sideline and McNamara floated a ball over the defense, giving the five-star freshman space to make the catch in stride.
From there, Edwards took care of the rest. He cut back towards the middle of the field, making three Terrapins miss on his way to a 77-yard touchdown. The long score helped Michigan cruise to a 59-18 win, setting up a de facto Big Ten East title game against Ohio State in Ann Arbor next week.
“As soon as he caught that pass, I could see the cutback coming because I’d seen it in practice a bunch of times,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said. “He was rolling. How fast did he look?”
Before anyone could respond, Harbaugh answered his own question:
With sophomore running back Blake Corum out on Saturday due to a lower-body injury, the Wolverines leaned on Edwards in the passing game. He entered the game with just two catches for 14 yards on the season and hauled in 10 of his 11 Saturday targets — tied for the most receptions of any Michigan player in a single game this season.
He turned those 10 catches into 170 receiving yards, setting the Wolverines’ all-time program record among running backs.
“That’s something we’ve seen in practice since he got here,” McNamara said. “His elusiveness, his ability to catch the ball, it’s really at a high level for a running back. I’m just so fired up that he was a big part of this game plan and that I was able to get the ball to him.”
But that wasn’t the case at the beginning of Edwards’s days in Ann Arbor. After winning a state title at West Bloomfield last fall, he enrolled early at Michigan and underwent surgery on his thumb. The procedure kept him in a hard cast for the first three weeks of the Wolverines’ spring practices.
Instead of collecting dust on the shelf, Edwards used those three weeks to improve his ball skills as a receiver. It didn’t take Harbaugh and his staff long to see the true freshman’s potential in the passing game.
“This guy doesn’t drop anything, and he’s wearing a hard cast on his hand,” Harbaugh recalled realizing. “The work he’s put in, he’s got so many built up reps.”
Since enrolling, Edwards has become particularly close with a fellow five-star freshman in quarterback J.J. McCarthy. The two have worked on their connection during the season through late-night, freshman-led practices after the Wolverines returned from road trips to Madison and Lincoln.
At one point in October, the duo was out on the State Street practice field with freshman receiver Andrel Anthony at 4:30 a.m. after Michigan’s plane from Nebraska touched down. Another time, Harbaugh had to take a picture on his iPhone because he was so astounded by their commitment following a win over Wisconsin.
On Saturday, Edwards got to enjoy the fruits of his labor. The Terrapins’ defense showed Michigan a lot of cover-one and man-to-man coverage looks, which gave Edwards opportunities to work against slower linebackers in the open field. That paid off for the Wolverines, who repeatedly took advantage of Edwards’s mismatch in the passing game.
“I feel like it was a good moment for me to showcase my talent,” Edwards said. “I believe every week, I just attack the week like it’s my first game of the season.”
Asked about Edwards’s record-setting performance during his postgame press conference, Harbaugh looked to his right and saw his protege sitting next to him. With an outstretched arm, he gave Edwards a fist bump.
Exchanging a laugh, Harbaugh leaned forward into the microphone, almost as if to keep his words a secret. But in reality, they were the most telling:
“I’ll make this statement, I don’t like to make a lot of big, hyperbolic statements, but it was a record, a great performance,” Harbaugh said. “But this will be a blip on the radar of the career of Donovan Edwards. He’s destined for great things.”