Across college football, coaches have different philosophies for getting groups of players motivated. Some rely on practice, and reward the players who display the most effort; others take a more hands off approach.
If a wide receiver wants to get more snaps, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh has a simple method:
Just text him.
If a player wants more involvement, they can reach out to Harbaugh, and he “loves” the guys that are willing to do it. It’s fostered a sense of competition and community within the wide receiver room. Entering the season, the Wolverines knew they had an embarrassment of riches at receiver, but it was unclear which players would emerge as regular contributors.
Throughout three games, the unit has impressed collectively, and many players have seen their calls for more opportunities answered. Ten different receivers have caught at least one pass so far, and their ability to get open with ease is a sign that they can replicate their production against the stronger competition that looms.
One player, who many were keen to see return, was senior Ronnie Bell, who missed essentially all of last season with a torn ACL. Bell has quickly re-assumed his role as a number one option, compiling 14 catches for 181 yards and a touchdown so far.
“I definitely feel like I’ve picked up where I left off,” Bell said. “I feel like I’ve got a lot more gears to hit.”
Bell’s re-emergence should come as no surprise, as he led Michigan in receiving yards in 2019 and 2020 before his injury. The question of who would pop up alongside him, though, was murkier. In the offseason, Harbaugh named several receivers who could vie for a starting receiver role — including senior Cornelius Johnson, junior Roman Wilson, junior A.J. Henning and sophomore Andrel Anthony,
But through non-conference play, Wilson has been the obvious standout.
“He’s been highly motivated,” Harbaugh said of Wilson. “It’s been an everyday approach for him. His focus and determination on being the best he can be has been daily. I do not know for sure if he’s taken the day off but it doesn’t seem like it. He’s been attacking at all times.”
Wilson’s offseason regimen has translated to impressive on-field results, and he’s shown off his blazing speed in multiple ways. Against Colorado State, he scored a 61-yard touchdown off a screen pass where he weaved through defenders untouched. In the matchup with Hawaii, he hauled in a 46-yarder — beating his defender on a post route and emerging wide open down the field. Most recently he reeled in three catches against UConn, a season high in receptions.
While the gaudy stats and dazzling catches give the wide receiver position a lot of shine, there is also a much less glamorous element to the position: blocking. It’s a necessary scheme element that allows for longer rushing plays and explosive screen passes — two things that featured prominently in Michigan’s win over UConn.
It takes a full buy-in from the receiver group to execute proper blocking techniques, but, so far, they are up to task.
“Right now, it’d be a battle (to say) who’s our best blocker,” Harbaugh said. “But it’s showing up. The perimeter game is at a new level for us and you’ve seen that in the ball games that we’ve been playing.”
With the offense now fully under sophomore quarterback J.J. McCarthy’s command, formidable downfield blocking, combined with the strong 1-2 bunch of Bell and Wilson, could give the Wolverines one of their strongest passing attacks in the Harbaugh era.
The receivers have been humming so far, but a weak non-conference schedule only offers so many benchmarks for how successful the group can be. Maryland offers a step up in the degree of talent on the field and Iowa — which has allowed the third fewest points per game — follows suit.
The competition level is on the rise for the Wolverines. That’s left Bell — in a literal sense — hungry for more:
“There’s a lot of meat on the bone,” Bell said. “I feel like throughout these first three games we haven’t necessarily finished our play. So there’s a lot to still be done, a lot to still be shown.”