It’s not really a secret — J.J. McCarthy has a favorite receiver in senior Roman Wilson.
And why shouldn’t he? Wilson has burning speed and an uncanny catching ability. He showed that once more against Nebraska when he quite literally hauled a touchdown off of a defensive back’s helmet. Anything the junior quarterback could want from a target, Wilson provides it. That’s why McCarthy has called his name eight times for touchdowns.
But there’s a problem with favorites: they’re predictable.
As much as Wilson’s archetype can dominate against lesser skilled teams — Nebraska, UNLV or East Carolina — he might not do that against tougher competition that focuses coverage on him. I’m talking about Penn State and Ohio State, but also any teams that the No. 2 Michigan football team might face on a probable College Football Playoff run. Those teams play strong defense, and they’ll surely hone in on Wilson.
Now it’s time to get someone else going, too.
So far, the Wolverines have struggled to find the same type of production down the depth chart. Graduate receiver Cornelius Johnson has 15 catches and averages an almost identical 17 yards per reception as Wilson, but he has only scored a lone touchdown. No other wideout has more than four catches, and five other receivers share two scoring catches between them.
Who exactly carries the ball to the end zone doesn’t matter as much as the outcome, but Michigan has put a lot of eggs into Wilson’s basket. Other teams know that every time he steps on the field, he’s the primary read out wide from a scoring sense. There isn’t another wrinkle for them to worry about.
That all showed on Wilson’s spectacular catch. Breaking into open space, a defender from across the field spied him open. As McCarthy forced a throw to Wilson, that defender had a chance to make a play on the ball. No matter how heroic the play looks in hindsight, in the moment it was a risky play akin to the ones that have already cost McCarthy on the biggest stage against TCU last year.
Even he recognized the risk of Wilson’s heroics:
“We had a double move that play, and I was looking towards Cornelius Johnson side and the DB played a good job,” McCarthy said Saturday. “… Then I looked back across the field and I saw Roman wide open. So I just threw it to him. And then I (saw) number two running, getting over there and I’m like, ‘oh, shoot.’ ”
McCarthy didn’t have much to wallow about. Wilson made his crazy grab, and McCarthy sprinted down the field to jump up and chest bump him. But in another world, it might instead have been an interception. McCarthy might’ve walked to the sideline with his head down.
If McCarthy feels the impulse to chuck it toward Wilson if his primary read is covered, that’s a larger concern. While crazy plays often get the benefit of the doubt, heroics shouldn’t be needed to score a touchdown against Nebraska. The Cornhuskers bled 252 passing yards per game before the Wolverines passed for 187 yards themselves. It’s on other receivers to get open against their competition and McCarthy to find them, not for Wilson to make a highlight catch to bail him out.
Because while McCarthy can get away with risks against Nebraska, the Nittany Lions and Buckeyes won’t let them slide. The former boasts the best pass defense in the NCAA, and the latter ranks fifth. They’ve got corners who play sticky coverage, not to mention better components around them. If the Wolverines don’t have secondary options to supplement Wilson, they might run into trouble.
None of this is to suggest that Wilson scoring is a problem. The concern is how much he is being leaned on. Last season, McCarthy showed he could make more than one lone receiver a scoring threat. He handed out six scores to Johnson, four to Ronnie Bell and three to Wilson. But there is no balance in one player scoring 80% of the Wolverines’ receiving touchdowns like Wilson is right now.
There’s a reason McCarthy loves targeting Wilson — it’s the crazy catches like his first touchdown against Nebraska. That’s why McCarthy called Wilson one of the most special players in the country after week one, something Wilson has only backed up since.
That’s why I’m not suggesting McCarthy should brush him off and force throws elsewhere. Rather, he should try to disperse the workload. Hit Johnson more in the red zone. Maybe utilize the third-down capabilities of sophomore receiver Tyler Morris. Or tap the athletic abilities of freshman receiver Semaj Morgan. But the more Michigan relies on Wilson now, the easier it might become for opponents to shut him down.
So for Wilson’s sake — and for the Wolverines’ — it’s time to get someone else involved, too.