Coming out of high school, football fans knew Roman Wilson as a burner. Considering his 4.37 40-yard dash time, that reputation was warranted.
But during Saturday’s 38-17 win over Wisconsin, the sophomore wide receiver stood out for other reasons. His team-leading six catches and 81 yards were a product of crisp route running and separation rather than pure speed. Both marks also set a new career-high, a testament to his connection with junior quarterback Cade McNamara.
“(Wilson) is growing leaps and bounds,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said Saturday. “… It’s almost like some of those X-Men movies, where the little kid or the teenage X-Man finds their power. Now they know they have it, and they’re using it. It’s really exciting to watch as a coach.”
Watching Wilson’s high school film, it doesn’t take long to notice a trend. The Hawaii native made a name for himself as a national recruit by repeatedly burning defensive backs over the top, helping Saint Louis High School win four consecutive state titles. Wilson racked up long touchdowns during the fall and spent the spring running sprints and jumping for the school’s track and field team.
But during his first two years in Ann Arbor, he’s grown in ways beyond blazing speed. Wilson is no longer just a deep threat, and some of his most important catches for the Wolverines so far have come on short and intermediate throws.
Take Saturday, for example. With Michigan facing a 4th-and-two near midfield, McNamara hit Wilson in stride on a short out route to move the sticks. At another point, McNamara took a downfield shot to Wilson, who timed the ball perfectly for a leaping catch on 3rd-and-10.
“Roman Wilson, of anybody, had the best day,” Harbaugh said Monday. “Offensive player of the game, et cetera. Fabulous-type catches.”
Wilson no longer has to rely on speed alone to make an impact on Saturdays. After developing the footwork to run short routes to perfection and the skills to make contested catches against physical Big Ten cornerbacks, he’s proven himself as a versatile threat.
Senior wideout Ronnie Bell’s season-ending knee injury left the team’s receiving corps with plenty of questions, but Wilson’s emergence has provided an answer. He lacks Bell’s experience, but his rapid growth has allowed him to find consistency over the first half of the season.
“I don’t know how much you can really tell from just looking at somebody’s eyes, but the demeanor,” Harbaugh said. “And then he’s catching the ball. Getting open, catching the ball, blocking. His blocking has improved so much.”
In just five weeks, Wilson has already matched his reception total and surpassed his yardage total from last season. And as he comes into his own, the Wolverines are reaping the benefits of establishing yet another offensive weapon.
But unlike the X-Men finding their powers, Wilson’s drastic improvement isn’t a sudden discovery.
“Roman’s been working,” senior receiver Daylen Baldwin said Monday. “All the receivers, we’ve just been pushing each other in ways I don’t even think we know at the end of the day. I go out there and make a good block, that might inspire Roman to make a good block. Roman goes out there and makes a good catch, that might inspire me to make sure I catch the next couple footballs that come to me.
“We’re pushing each other without even noticing, and we’re making each other a lot better.”