Over the past four years, there hasn’t been much of a question as to who the Michigan football team’s No. 1 wide receiver was — it was unequivocally Ronnie Bell.
But now, with Bell leaving Ann Arbor for the greener pastures of the NFL Draft, there’s a big hole to fill. His importance to the Wolverines over the past five years simply cannot be overstated. In 2019 and 2020, Bell led Michigan in both receptions and receiving yards, and he likely would’ve done the same in 2021 if he hadn’t been injured in the first game. Last season, Bell ramped up his production and took things a step further — again leading all of Michigan’s receivers in receptions and yardage, and nearly doubling the totals of the next closest receivers in both categories.
Now however, the Wolverines have lost their star. Senior wide receiver Roman Wilson, graduate receiver Cornelius Johnson, and the rest of the wide receiving corps are looking to step up and fill the gap in production.
“For us to be able to replace Ronnie, it’s gonna be hard,” Wilson said. “He’s someone who’s very passionate about the game and always ready to work and someone that’s always motivated. … I’m not gonna say it’s gonna be hard to replace him, but it’s gonna be hard to do the things that he did on the field consistently.”
Without Bell, Johnson and Wilson are the two most likely candidates to take the reins. Last year the duo finished second and third, respectively, in yards and receptions among wide receivers. Johnson even led Michigan with six touchdowns and scored two against Ohio State.
But thrust into the top receiving roles, both will have to take things a step further — on the field and off. Those two alone cannot fill the void of Bell’s absence. They’ll need to see growth from returning wide receivers who saw limited action and an early impact from a freshman class looking to grow into key facets of the offense.
“One thing I do to help fill the void is step into his leadership role a little bit and help the young guys coming up,” Wilson said. “Besides me and (Johnson) other guys are gonna have to play who haven’t really played a lot of minutes this year. Just me helping them and kind of pushing them into the right direction is going to help a lot.”
Like Wilson mentioned, the rest of the returning receiving corps saw limited action in 2022, and the freshmen will have a clear learning curve. But there’s a need for a third wide receiver to step up.
That could come from receivers like junior A.J. Henning and sophomore Tyler Morris — who played at moments last year, but not consistently. Or it could come from one of the freshmen, as early enrollees Semaj Morgan and Frederick Moore are both vying for that role. But how and if Michigan recovers from the loss of Bell and the transfer of Andrel Anthony — who likely would have stepped into a larger role — is one of the biggest question marks for the Wolverines’ offense.
Nonetheless, the group remains confident.
“Semaj Morgan and Fred Moore, they’re really looking good, Tyler Morris is doing really good,” graduate cornerback Mike Sainristil said. “I think the receivers are in a good spot right now, especially knowing Ronnie’s gone. ‘Alright, we need another guy to step in that position.’ ”
There’s no clear heir to Bell’s throne as the top wide receiver — the role’s still open. But for right now at least, Wilson and Johnson have to embody the leadership role, and they’ll hope the production follows.