Donovan Peoples-Jones doesn’t want anyone making excuses for him.
Chris Partridge, Michigan’s special teams coach, said as much Wednesday afternoon.
Right now, fresh off a 79-yard punt return touchdown against Air Force and a breakout receiving performance, the freshman phenom doesn’t need anyone to.
A week ago, well — that’s a different story. Peoples-Jones was responsible for a fumble that gave Michigan fans a heart attack and took a seat on the sideline.
He had won a starting job. Then he lost it, albeit only for a half.
In the span of two games, Peoples-Jones has already experienced the highs and lows of college football. And as Partridge explained, given the difficulties that come with returning punts, he wouldn’t want it any other way.
“To me, I think that catching a punt outside in an open environment like that is the hardest thing to do,” Partridge said. “… For a freshman to have to do that, those game reps are invaluable. We can do everything we want in practice, but when all the pressure is there … and everybody’s releasing everybody, those reps are valuable.
“And he just continues to lock it in and get better at it. You don’t want that stuff to happen, but that happening is gonna make him so much better moving forward here.”
The touchdown against the Falcons is evident of how apt Partridge’s theory is.
But even when he’s working with a player who was ranked as the top receiver in his class, there’s a balance Partridge must strike between allowing Peoples-Jones’ natural talent to flourish while still teaching him week by week.
“I can take a lot of the blame on myself and the coaches too, to make sure we progress in the right way,” Partridge said. “You’ve got to make sure that these guys are comfortable, can be fast, and can be who they are.”
If he can’t, there’s the risk that a repeat of Cincinnati could happen. And while Peoples-Jones doesn’t want anyone making excuses for him, Partridge was willing to.
“For a young guy, I get it to an extent,” Partridge said. “He’s trying to catch the ball first, he’s trying to get to where the return is going, he’s trying to wonder, ‘Should I fair catch it? Should I play it?’
“There (are) a lot of things going in his mind, and taking charge might take a back seat in that moment. I think he realized now that it can’t take a backseat. He needs to take charge out there.”
Partridge may have been talking about Peoples-Jones’ role as a punt returner, but it could just as easily apply to him at receiver given the Wolverines’ circumstance. They are suddenly without Tarik Black — the man who leads Michigan in receiving yards and receptions — and have a date with a suddenly resurgent Purdue in West Lafayette this weekend.
And yet, what the Wolverines lost in Black they may find again in Peoples-Jones. There is, of course, the obvious: At 6-foot-2 and 199 pounds, Peoples-Jones compares well to Black’s 6-foot-3, 203-pound frame, and he has next-level speed and athleticism to go with it. As a junior in high school he won the SPARQ competition at The Opening — a recruiting showcase for the nation’s top seniors.
That all goes without mentioning that in his limited snaps at receiver, he has still had a tremendous impact. His two-reception, 52-yard outing against Air Force is the obvious example, but he has consistently shown an ability to get open for Wilton Speight — something the redshirt junior quarterback needs now more than ever.
There is no question that Peoples-Jones has had his spotlight in the punt return game. Now, that spotlight is only getting brighter. And it’s in his mistakes that Peoples-Jones may find his next big play.
After all, Peoples-Jones has already shown plenty of people: For him, mistakes are just fleeting moments.
“It can’t (linger) for big-time players, or for anyone,” Partridge said. “This game is all about highs and lows. If everything was all great, you’d always win and everyone would be doing it.
“It’s overcoming that kind of stuff, and the mistakes, that really make a true, true competitor, warrior, top athlete, who they are. And Donovan is that. Donovan is going to be an unreal football player for this team, this year, and moving on.”