In Michigan’s win over Minnesota on Saturday, eight different players had at least 10 receiving yards.
Unlike last year, when quarterback Shea Patterson completed over half his passes to the trio of Ronnie Bell, Nico Collins and Donovan Peoples-Jones — even when no one in that group was open — junior quarterback Joe Milton showed that he was capable of throwing the ball to anyone in the 49-24 victory.
In particular, Milton found success with quick passes, opening the game with a swing pass to freshman running back Blake Corum. During the second quarter, Milton hit freshman wide receiver A.J. Henning on a nearly-identical play for a 14-yard gain. Then, in the fourth quarter, Bell received a bubble screen on the sideline and broke through two tackles for 30 yards.
Milton made the quick passes look easy, but if the throw is off by even a few inches or the communication between the quarterback and receiver is inadequate, they can lead to yardage losses.
“Those throws, it’s everything,” quarterbacks coach Ben McDaniels said Wednesday. “The accuracy in those throws to maximize the yards after the catch and I don’t think there’s any question that that’s one of the best things he did to allow our guys, our players to run with the ball after it and I thought we maximized yards because of it.”
Over the past few days, several Michigan players have spoken about how this year’s team chemistry is better than it was last year. It showed on the field. Last year, the Wolverines made mental mistakes. They turned the ball over. They sometimes seemed scattered. On Saturday, Michigan’s offense was clearly all on the same page.
Pick your cliche to describe this offseason: unprecedented, strange, unique. Whichever word you use, it’s easy to understand how it could upend a team’s preparation for the season. But the once-in-a-lifetimeness of it all may have actually brought the Wolverines closer together.
“I’d say the corona period we had allowed us to continue building trust in each other,” sophomore wide receiver Mike Sainristil said Tuesday. “ … The way (Milton’s) comfortable back there and that’s not something that just happens overnight, that comes over a period of time, and that off period we had, or the time that we weren’t playing games is when I really feel like we were able to continue building that trust.”
For the first time in six years under Jim Harbaugh, the Wolverines retained their entire offensive coaching staff, allowing for continuity in the playbook. But the COVID-shortened offseason afforded Michigan another advantage: an NCAA-mandated recruiting dead period that allowed assistant coaches to spend more time with their teams.
“I think another significant factor was no assistant coaches were on the road recruiting in April or May,” Harbaugh said Monday. “They did a lot of meetings, a lot of Zoom meetings that were maybe daily. And pretty much every day of the week. So I think they really did a great job coming together and sifting through everything we were doing.”
But it’s not just these special circumstances. Michigan’s starters may be different than last year, but with the exception of true freshmen Henning and Roman Wilson, all the receivers have had at least one year to get to know each other, Milton and Josh Gattis — whose offensive scheme many were recruited to play in. They even had the opportunity for some in-game reps together in garbage time, when the second-team offense came on the field.
Sure, all the receivers are talented. But that was even more true last year. Often, it seemed the missing ingredient was trust. Now, there’s reciprocity: Milton has faith in his receivers and they have faith in him.
“I think some chemistry has been building over the last few years for sure on some guys,” McDaniels said. “And the freshmen did a great job of coming in and being able to run — no pun intended — right from the get-go.”
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