It can be easy to forget — given the highs, lows and in-betweens that have occupied the interim — where Tarik Black was two years ago.
As a shorthand recap: Black broke his left foot in Week 3 of a freshman season seemingly destined for stardom. Then, mere days before last season’s opener, he fractured the right foot, a devastating setback before a bounce-back year could even take flight.
Clouded in the whiplash of injury and recovery updates, the promise of Black’s first fall camp now feels like a distant memory. But two years ago Saturday, Black was the one lacing up his boots to start alongside Kekoa Crawford at wideout — not Donovan Peoples-Jones or Nico Collins. He was the one garnering all the plaudits. Then he took the top off the Florida defense, catching a 46-yard touchdown in his first collegiate game, and turned that hype to a fever pitch.
“As a true freshman, he goes into a nationally-televised game in Cowboy Stadium and didn’t even flinch,” Joe Hastings, then Michigan’s wide receivers coach, told The Daily earlier this month. “You want to talk about redeeming qualities, there was no fear. He was comfortable, collected and went in there, you wouldn’t have thought if someone told you he was a true freshman.”
It was a time of desperation at the position for the Wolverines, who returned a scant 22 catches from the 2016 receiving corps. Kekoa Crawford came into camp the only established starter of the bunch. Black was part of a highly-touted recruiting class — grouped with Peoples-Jones, Collins, Brad Hawkins and Oliver Martin. And yet it was clear from the outset which of the five made the strongest first impression.
“The one thing about Tarik is, he had such good body control, solid hands and really good route-running ability, and kind of came in that way a little bit,” Hastings said. “There were things he needed to work on, but he’s such a natural athlete, with the size and physical part of it. I think it was just catching up mentally to the speed of the game.”
But then came the injuries, and with them, slow, unceasing recovery processes. Nearly all of it has taken place behind closed doors — Black didn’t speak with the media during spring or fall camp, and has understandably done so sparingly in his career thus far. He practiced ahead of the Outback Bowl his freshman season, but decided not to play in order to preserve a potential redshirt.
He returned midseason last year, but spent much of the year reacclimating to the speed of the game and the group. With Collins and Peoples-Jones blossoming into stars, Black was unfurled from the bubble wrap slowly and deliberately. That cautious approach led to just four catches for 35 yards on the season.
“It’s been a tough ride,” Black said, after the Peach Bowl last year. “Two back-to-back injuries, it’s hard. But God was with me. My boys was with me. They were there every step of the way and I appreciate that. That’s the only way I got through this.”
Now, finally, a full fall camp at his back, Black gets his moment two years in the making.
“Tarik Black, he’s really doing well. He’s had a very good camp,” said Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh on Monday. “Had a good spring — he’s been very, very good. Especially over the last five practices, he’s really standing out.”
The irony, of course, with Black now re-entering the fold at receiver, is that his production was far more important to the 2017 group than it will be to this year’s team. Peoples-Jones and Collins both have All-Big Ten expectations. For Black, a full year of health would be the baseline hope, with anything else a welcome added bonus.
It’s impossible to know how 2017 might have played out. Through three weeks, he led the team in receptions (11) and receiving yards (149). He was on track, with the sample size an important caveat, to be Michigan’s most productive freshman receiver in history.
Still, Hastings knows what he saw that first bit of Black’s freshman year. He knows his capabilities. While he wishes he could have seen a full year in 2017, he expects big things this year.
“To me, it’s probably like riding a bike,” Hastings said. “Once you know how to play football, you know how to play football.”