Early last season, Josh Gattis had doubts about Giles Jackson.
Then a freshman wide receiver, Jackson was struggling to learn the playbook and relied too much on raw speed. At one point, he was even demoted to the scout team. But by the end of the season, Gattis prioritized getting the ball in his hands however possible. Jackson finished 2019 with 142 receiving yards, 69 rushing yards and 622 kick return yards and became the first Wolverine since 1972 to have a rushing, receiving and kick return touchdown in the same season.
Now, Jackson is firmly entrenched as a key member of Michigan’s wide receiver unit. He even used a Zoom background of himself on the field when speaking to reporters last Thursday, a sign of a player confident in his role.
And if the Wolverines’ offense is able to build off the first year of Gattis’s tenure as offensive coordinator, it will be because of players like Jackson. Three of Michigan’s four leading receivers last season are not currently with the team: Donovan Peoples-Jones is now on the Cleveland Browns, Tarik Black transferred to Texas and Nico Collins’s status is uncertain after he signed with an agent before the season was reinstated. But Gattis is not only confident that Jackson and other younger receivers will step up — he firmly believes the unit will end up being one of the team’s strengths.
“I don’t wanna jinx us by any means but where we are in that receiver room right now, I think is impressive,” Gattis said in a Zoom call Wednesday. “It’s one of the most impressive rooms I’ve been around from an overall depth and feel standpoint, and I didn’t feel this way last year.”
Alongside Jackson, two other freshmen receivers made noise last year. In limited duty, Mike Sainristil hauled in eight passes for 145 yards — an average of 18.1 yards per catch — and scored a touchdown. Cornelius Johnson had four catches for 61 yards, including a 39-yard touchdown against Michigan State.
Looking at the receivers Michigan had last year, it’s easy to see why the pair didn’t get more playing time. Gattis called it a “numbers game” — both players were good enough to play a bigger role, but so were several other, older receivers. But Gattis is impressed with their technique and fundamentals and is confident in their ability to impact the offense. More importantly, being in the same class and playing a similar role last year has allowed Jackson, Johnson and Sainristil to develop chemistry together, something that’s vital amid a lost spring season.
“Me, Mikey, Cornelius, we’re all super tight,” Jackson said. “The three receivers in our class, when we get in … we’re like, it’s our turn. We’re all gonna have fun. If Mikey gets the ball or Cornelius gets the ball, we’re all so in love, so it’s like no hard feelings lost. If they get the ball we’re all excited.”
Along with junior Ronnie Bell, Jackson, Johnson and Sainristil will likely be the main guys to start the year, but coming up behind them, true freshmen AJ Henning and Roman Wilson have already made an impression on everyone in the room. Henning is even nicknamed “Hot Wheels” because of his speed, and Wilson is known just as much for being fast. For them, the challenge will be the same as it is for all freshmen — developing more physicality when the Wolverines are able to practice in pads beginning Sept. 30.
It’s a high-variance unit, to be sure. With so much of last year’s production gone, the onus will be on Michigan’s younger receivers to step up and bear the load. But if what Gattis says he’s seen every day at Schembechler Hall translates to Michigan Stadium, the Wolverines have a lot to be excited about.
As Gattis put it: “I know our quarterbacks are enjoying it now.”
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