Jim Harbaugh didn’t sugarcoat the challenge that awaits the Michigan football team in the wake of senior receiver Ronnie Bell’s season-ending knee injury.
“It’s gonna be very difficult to replace Ronnie Bell,” Harbaugh said on Monday, minutes after revealing the severity of Bell’s injury, which he suffered while returning a second quarter punt in Saturday’s season-opening victory over Western Michigan. “Really tough. Really tough. … He just wants it really bad.
“Those are the good players. The good players are the ones who want it the most and now somebody’s tasked to try to fill those roles. Maybe one guy, maybe take two, two types of players to fill those shoes.”
Bell’s injury is a catastrophic blow to the Wolverines’ offense. For two consecutive seasons, he led Michigan in both receptions and receiving yards, transcending from an unheralded recruit to number one target. He flashed his explosive talent in limited snaps on Saturday, including reeling in a 76-yard touchdown pass early in the second quarter.
In a mostly inexperienced and unproven offense, Bell stood as the rock.
“He’s like the heart and soul of the wide receiver room,” sophomore receiver A.J. Henning said. “Seeing him go down, it’s tough.”
When asked which players would need to step up in Bell’s absence, Harbaugh labeled seven different receivers as “immediate guys” who would be “ready to go” in the near-future. It’s an answer that speaks volumes about Bell’s production and consistency. The Wolverines aren’t capable of replacing him with a single player; doing so will require a group effort, in part because Bell is such a versatile player.
Harbaugh lauded Bell’s blocking ability, noting that junior receiver Mike Sainristil and senior running back Hassan Haskins also excelled in that area on Saturday. The role of primary punt returner has seemingly been delegated to junior defensive back Caden Kolesar, while Henning figures to be an option in upcoming games.
“For him to go down, everybody has to step up,” Henning said. “That’s a major loss. But I think it’s going to be everybody stepping up and doing their job and playing a part to pick it up.”
Moving forward, that effort is likely to start with Sainristil and junior receiver Cornelius Johnson, the presumable starters out wide. Henning, who scored a 74-yard touchdown on a jet sweep against Western Michigan, is also poised for a more prominent role. The same can be said for sophomore receiver Roman Wilson.
While the quartet of Sainristil, Johnson, Henning and Wilson has promise, the overall track record is lacking. They’ve combined for just 54 career catches in their collegiate careers. By contrast, Bell has 83.
Of the healthy receivers, the one with the most collegiate success is Daylen Baldwin, a redshirt senior transfer from Jackson State. He has 58 career receptions with 10 touchdowns, including a memorable one on Saturday, when he reeled in freshman quarterback J.J. McCarthy’s cross-field heave for a 69-yard score — his first as a Wolverine.
On Monday, fifth-year senior safety Brad Hawkins was quick to mention Baldwin as a viable option to help alleviate the loss of Bell.
None of Michigan’s receivers, though, are as reliable as Bell has proven to be. Suddenly, junior Cade McNamara is stripped of his safety blanket, less than one full game into his tenure as the starting quarterback. And an offense predicated on establishing the run must rely more heavily on that play style.
But those are challenges that the Wolverines insist they’re ready for.
“We’re all going to do our job in stepping up and filling that role, all the receivers and everybody on the offense, because everyone wants to do it for him,” Henning said. “That’s the kind of guy he is — he’s a captain on this team. He’s really respected on this team and you just hate to see that for him.”