While a disintegrating offensive line and mistake-prone defense drew most of the attention against Notre Dame on Saturday, Michigan’s wide receivers played their best game in nearly two years.
In the 24-17 defeat, sophomores Nico Collins, Donovan Peoples-Jones and Oliver Martin, as well as fifth-year senior Grant Perry, combined for 181 yards on 17 catches. It marked the position group’s largest output since Nov. 5, 2016, when Wilton Speight set a program record for passing yards in a half.
The Wolverines’ passing game sputtered in 2017, largely due to the struggles of their wideouts, who combined to catch just three touchdowns all season. Perry, their leading receiver, managed a paltry 307 yards.
But on Saturday, the group consistently beat the Fighting Irish secondary — especially in short-yardage situations — and allowed Michigan to move the ball despite rushing for just 58 yards.
“I thought we had pretty good separation throughout the game,” said receivers coach Jim McElwain. “It’s something you work on every single day, and our guys I think have seen the importance of it. … They’ve responded well to being conscious of gaining separation.”
Wolverine receivers mentioned that as a priority throughout spring and summer camp. They credited McElwain — who was the head coach at Florida from 2015 to 2017 — with teaching them subtleties to the position that have aided their growth from a season ago.
It showed Saturday, but still not as often as McElwain would’ve liked it to.
“One of the things we have to do a better job of is playing fast throughout the game,” he said. “I thought there were plays we looked slow. And yet, there were times we looked pretty fast. The consistency really wasn’t there, and where I think we can be a little better.”
McElwain mentioned this was the case for Peoples-Jones specifically, who made six catches for 38 yards. Though Peoples-Jones wasn’t one of the many who fell victim to cramps in the South Bend heat, fatigue caught up with him — at least in his coach’s eyes.
“I think he played too many plays,” McElwain said. “That’s on me as far as being able to play fast every single down. I think there were times — not that he was loafing, but quite honestly, because he was gassed. We got to do a better job (of managing) the pitch count.”
That will likely lead to more snaps for Martin and freshman Ronnie Bell. After redshirting last year, Martin made three catches for 29 yards in his first collegiate appearance; the Wolverines ran two screens for Martin before he caught a 21-yard pass on Michigan’s lone offensive touchdown drive.
On the other hand, Bell had a much quicker path to the Wolverines’ receiving rotation. A former Missouri State basketball commit with no other Division I football offers, Bell committed to Michigan last December but learned enough of the offense to see the field against the Fighting Irish.
“He did a really good job of attacking the playbook,” McElwain said. “The hardest thing for guys sometimes when they’re young is maintaining how fast they can play when their mind is spinning. I thought he did a really good job.”
Balancing the mental demands of the position with playing full speed isn’t easy. McElwain saw this with Collins, who took some time to gain his confidence despite being a four-star recruit.
“I thought (he was) tentative early when we got here in the spring,” McElwain said. “As his confidence grew in the ‘what’ and the ‘how,’ he seemed to play faster and faster.”
Since sophomore Tarik Black suffered a right foot injury, the door opened for Collins, whose size and speed have become a talking point for Michigan players and coaches. He showed why against Notre Dame with three catches for 66 yards — including the Wolverines’ most explosive play of the evening: a 52-yard deep ball on the first snap of the third quarter.
“I guess I’d say his assignment grade was really good in this game, which tells me he did a good job of preparation,” McElwain said. “… Technically, he played pretty darn good.”
McElwain provided no update on Black’s injury on Wednesday, as he would neither confirm nor deny the possibility of a comeback this season. It’s a different group replacing Black than in 2017 — Kekoa Crawford and Eddie McDoom have both left the program — and Michigan is still working through its receiver rotation.
But though it wasn’t a perfect performance, Saturday showed that the Wolverine receivers are closer to answers than they’ve been in some time.