As far as freshman debuts go, Donovan Peoples-Jones’ was fairly impressive.
The first-year receiver started at punt returner for Michigan, returning five punts for 40 yards in his team’s 33-17 victory over Florida. And while the total yardage may not seem like much, that was in part due to Florida’s special team coverage and the efforts of Johnny Townsend, who averaged 54.7 yards per punt with excellent hang time.
Nonetheless, Peoples-Jones displayed the athleticism that made him such a highly-touted prospect out of high school. He fielded every punt he saw, never calling for a fair catch despite Florida’s special teamers barrelling down upon him. Each time he touched the ball, he was seemingly one or two broken tackles away from breaking a long return.
The freshman, though, was much more measured about his performance.
“I think I played okay,” Peoples-Jones said Tuesday. “There’s always room for improvement, and with this team, the amount of talent that we have, I think the sky's the limit.”
His head coach offered praise following the game — with one caveat.
“Donovan Peoples-Jones (was) very good on the punt return,” said Jim Harbaugh. “Gotta get that ball a little tighter, better ball security.”
Peoples-Jones agreed. In his mind, “ball security equals job security.” That won’t affect how he decides to return punts, though. He sees his responsibility as giving the offense good field position, and if that means risking a big hit to field a punt, so be it.
“As a punt returner, you’ve got to kind of be relentless and fearless back there,” Peoples-Jones said. “Anything that I can do for this team to help them win, I’m going to do it.”
While Peoples-Jones said that he was “really excited” for the opportunity to return punts, it’s likely he’s hoping for more snaps at receiver after arriving on campus as the nation’s top-ranked recruit at the position and the crown jewel of Michigan’s 2017 recruiting class.
There doesn’t appear to be any consternation from Peoples-Jones on the lack of receiving targets, though. The coaches have a plan for him, and he trusts that plan.
Peoples-Jones — who enrolled early — has also had the benefit of help from an unexpected source: redshirt junior quarterback Wilton Speight.
The two were roommates in fall camp, and the veteran starting quarterback appears to have taken the freshman under his wing.
“It was great chemistry,” Peoples-Jones said. “… Every night we were together talking, just learning (about) the type of person (Speight) is. Him meeting me, just being around each other, helped a lot.
“He’s a great person. He’s one of my newer friends, and I like him a lot. … It can benefit me a lot. Questions that I might not be comfortable with asking the coaches, things that he knows that the coaches don’t know I can ask him, or we can have a connection there.”
While freshman receivers have typically had difficulty making an impact at Michigan — Mario Manningham set the record for most receiving yards with a relatively modest 433-yard campaign his freshman year — Peoples-Jones does appear well-equipped to pick up the mental aspects of the game.
After all, it can’t be much harder than his class load.
“In the spring, I had a wide load of classes — calculus and physics — so it’s not much more than that,” Peoples-Jones said.
For now, there isn’t much calculus to do when he’s on the field. Peoples-Jones was blunt when asked about what was going through his mind while taking his first punt.
“I wanted to score,” Peoples-Jones said.