As the Michigan football team went through its normal Monday walkthrough last week, Andrel Anthony noticed he was playing a bigger role than usual.
“I definitely realized I was going to have a big part in this game,” the freshman receiver said a week later. “I didn’t know it was going to be that big, but I knew I was going to have a shot, an opportunity, to make a play and capitalize on that.”
That’s exactly what he did. Six catches, 155 yards and two touchdowns later, Anthony emerged as a bright spot in the Wolverines’ 37-33 loss to Michigan State on Saturday.
The East Lansing native wasted no time making noise in his homecoming. On Michigan’s third play from scrimmage, he caught a crossing route in stride from junior quarterback Cade McNamara — his first career reception — and turned the corner before the Spartans’ secondary could catch up. A few seconds later, he trotted into the end zone to cap off a 93-yard touchdown — the second-longest in program history.
“Being able to be put in a position by the coaches and stuff like that, players believing in me, Cade giving me opportunities, stuff like that, it meant the world to me,” Anthony said. “Yeah, I’m a true freshman, but (coaches) really believe in me. That meant a lot to me.”
Anthony hauled in another touchdown in the second half, this time from freshman quarterback J.J. McCarthy. Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh spotted Anthony and McCarthy voluntarily working out on the practice field together, along with freshman running back Donovan Edwards, following the Wolverines’ road trips to Wisconsin and Nebraska. Anthony and Edwards used the time to rep different routes with McCarthy, who practiced high and low throws to their back shoulders.
When Anthony saw the ball leave McCarthy’s right hand on Saturday afternoon, he had a flashback to those freshman sessions.
“I was like, ‘OK, this is just like after the Wisconsin game when we got back,’ ” Anthony said. “The connection we have already is amazing, and it’s just going to continue to grow.”
For Michigan, the timing of Anthony’s emergence is critical. With senior receiver Ronnie Bell out for the season and sophomore receiver Roman Wilson nursing a wrist injury, Anthony filled the void in a big way on Saturday.
Bell, in particular, played a significant role in getting Anthony ready for the moment. From the time Anthony stepped foot on campus, the duo studied the playbook together and stayed in the gym for their own lifts after teamwide weight room activities.
“He always told me he believes in me, and it meant a lot to me because I looked up to him in high school,” Anthony said. “I was like, ‘Ronnie Bell believes in me?’ ”
Since arriving as an early enrollee in January, Anthony has focused on becoming a better playmaker. He was known as a deep threat in high school, but he’s since added nearly 10 pounds of muscle while retaining his speed and explosiveness. The additional strength has helped him make plays on short and intermediate routes while also improving his ability to make contested catches — a major focal point of Michigan offensive coordinator Josh Gattis’s coaching.
Still, Anthony’s blocking struggles kept him off the field early on this season. Given how much the Wolverines run the ball, wide receiver blocking is at the top of the priority among the team’s receivers. Anthony said coaches got on him about blocking during spring practices and fall camp, which forced him to focus more on that area.
A few months later, Anthony feels he’s come into his own. And his teammates see it too.
“He’s been having a very good last couple weeks of practice,” junior receiver Mike Sainristil said. “He’s been very detailed. He’s just been practicing very well and understanding that, with guys like Roman not playing and Ronnie hurt, he has to play a higher role and step up in the offense.
“That’s just who he is. He finally had the chance to showcase it.”