As the final days count down until the Michigan football team opens the 2017 season against Florida in the AdvoCare Classic on Sept. 2 at AT&T Stadium in Dallas, the Daily breaks down each position group for the Wolverines this year. In this edition: wide receivers and tight ends.
The storyline may be redundant, but that doesn’t make it any less true. The Wolverines have plenty of talent to replace at wide receiver and tight end after Amarah Darboh, Jehu Chesson and Jake Butt graduated to the NFL ranks.
Though the Wolverines will lack experience and lose major production at both positions, an influx of highly touted recruits and a youthful group that flashed potential in 2016 is evidence that whoever lines up behind center will still have weapons at their disposal. But if Michigan hopes to find success in the passing game, some receivers will have to grow up quickly, and others will need to finally seize the opportunity that they have been waiting for.
Here’s how the group stacks up this year:
Who’s back: Sophomores Kekoa Crawford and Eddie McDoom make up a young receiving core returning for their second year in Ann Arbor after seeing significant playing time as freshmen.
McDoom is an intriguing talent never short of confidence, known best for the game-breaking speed that he flashed in the jet sweep package to the tune of 172 yards on just 16 carries. Though he was a limited factor in the passing game — catching just five passes in 2016 — McDoom has said that he has been practicing at every receiving position and figures to be a versatile weapon that the Wolverines will have at their disposal.
Crawford, on the other hand, worked his way onto the field as a freshman with his blocking ability. Though he notched just four receptions, he did appear in all 13 games and recorded the first touchdown of his career. With Chesson and Darboh’s departure, the door is seemingly wide open for the young wideout to seize a starting job.
Sophomore Nate Johnson will also figure to see an increased role, though he played in just three games and recorded only one reception in 2016.
In addition to the sophomore trio, junior Grant Perry was recently fully reinstated to the team, after two charges of criminal sexual conduct and an alcohol charge that stemmed from an October incident in East Lansing were dropped. Joining Perry as a veteran member of the receiving group is redshirt junior Maurice Ways.
Both Perry and Ways could be poised to post significant numbers for the Wolverines. Perry recorded 183 yards on 13 receptions in 10 games, while Ways is finally healthy after having surgery to address a foot injury that limited him to just six games in 2016.
Not to be overlooked, sophomore Nate Schoenle has worked his way into the conversation to receive snaps this year after entering the program as a preferred walk-on in 2016.
As for the tight ends, Michigan will return redshirt freshmen Nick Eubanks and Sean McKeon, redshirt sophomores Zach Gentry and Tyrone Wheatley Jr. and senior Ian Bunting.
McKeon will get snaps, though the four men ahead of him figure to have far greater roles. A 55-yard touchdown reception in Michigan’s Spring Game is evidence of Gentry’s potential at the position after converting from quarterback, and Eubanks made strides physically to place himself in contention for playing time. Wheatley consistently showcased his ability to block in 2016, and with the depth chart finally opening up, the redshirt junior could be poised for a breakout year. And finally, Bunting figures to be a staple of the tight end rotation — another player who can be effective both in the passing game and in blocking situations.
Who’s not: Darboh, Chesson and Butt have all moved on to the NFL. In their departures, Michigan is losing a trio that accounted for almost 70 percent of the team’s receiving yards in 2016 and scored 13 of the Wolverines’ 20 passing touchdowns. Sophomore Devin Asiasi’s transfer to UCLA is another major blow that the Wolverines will need to cope with.
Who’s new: The incoming receiving class is a star-studded one. In Donovan Peoples-Jones, the Wolverines have the nation’s top-ranked receiving prospect suiting up in 2017. His early enrollment helps his case for playing time out wide, and redshirt junior quarterback Wilton Speight was quickly impressed by Peoples-Jones’ catching ability during Michigan’s spring practices.
Tarik Black — a four-star recruit ranked 15th among receiving prospects — was another early enrollee. The young receiver made a big impression in the Wolverines’ Spring Game, capped by an 11-yard touchdown reception, and he is already a likely candidate to start at receiver.
Nico Collins and Oliver Martin are two more receivers arriving to Ann Arbor as four-star recruits, but will likely trail Black and Peoples-Jones on the depth chart due to the latter duo’s early enrollment.
Stats in 2016:
Crawford: four receptions, 47 yards, one touchdown
McDoom: 16 rushing attempts, 172 yards
Perry: 13 receptions, 183 yards (10 games)
Ways: two receptions, 24 yards (six games)
Bunting: five receptions, 46 yards (11 games)
Wheatley: three receptions, 35 yards (12 games)
Outlook: The talent is there, it’s just a matter of tapping into the potential. There may be growing pains in the opening weeks, as no amount of practice reps can equate to the game experience that Michigan’s former receiving trio accumulated over their time in Ann Arbor. Still, the Wolverines have a combination of size and speed that could prove dangerous for opposing defenses once the unit gets on the same page. McDoom, Crawford and Wheatley could have breakout campaigns, while the likes of Bunting, Perry and Ways will provide a much-needed veteran presence. And don’t be surprised if you see a lot of Black and Peoples-Jones.
Edge/Prediction: If the Wolverines want to replicate the production that Darboh, Chesson and Butt provided, they will likely need to do so by committee. Crawford, Black and McDoom figure to start against Florida, as will Bunting, but there should be plenty of players out wide against the Gators. Michigan is fortunate to face a Florida team that lost six members of its secondary to the NFL after finishing second nationally in passing defense in 2016. The matchup in Dallas will, theoretically, pit youth against youth. And at the end of the day, something’s gotta give.