Braylon Edwards is like that older sibling who’s nearly perfect. During his time at Michigan he accomplished practically all the goals a college player could dream of: conference titles, rivalry game wins, All-Big Ten and All-American honors, Biletnikoff Trophy — and the list goes on.
Steve Breaston and Jason Avant are the “little” brothers that must live up to the standard that Edwards set for Michigan receivers. They now bear the burden of scaring defenses enough to open running lanes for the ground attack. And while neither is as imposing, flashy or experienced as Edwards, the duo has the talent and leadership to do more than just play a role.
They each have their own defining style. Breaston is the electrifying one. He can start and stop on a dime and make defenders look like kids. He sports the same big-play ability that Michigan legend Desmond Howard displayed 14 years ago. And he knows that, with his talent, he needs to be the guy to replace Edwards in creating the game changing moments.
“He brought the big play,” Breaston said. “He was the best receiver in college football. But we still have high hopes. Me and Jason have been around, and we’ve accomplished some things so far.”
And then there is Avant, he is the steady one. He may not be the fastest or quickest, but his hands are some of the best in college football. In the same way that Breaston can be compared to Howard, Avant’s career bares a striking resemblance to that of former Wolverine Marquise Walker. Both had players overshadowing their own accomplishments and a defining one-handed catch — Avant’s against Northwestern in 2003, and Walker’s was against Iowa in 2001.
Their styles may differ, but their friendship should aid their transition this season.
“We’re really close,” Avant said. “He talks to me about everything, and I talk about problems and things like that.”
Said Breaston: “Me and J are very close. He’s a great person, and he helps me out a lot. It’s hard for me to figure out anyone in my life like him and I’m fortunate to have him in my life.”
The two friends have also had similar career paths filled with both highs and lows.
Breaston thrilled the crowd during the 2003 season when he shared Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors with Minnesota’s Laurence Maroney. But last season did not go as smoothly as Breaston — or the Michigan faithful — would have liked. He had a stress fracture in his foot, broke his finger and had a number of nagging injuries that kept him from making the impact many expected. The player who fans had nicknamed “Superman” looked more like Clark Kent at times last year. But by the end of the season — culminating in his scintillating performance in the Rose Bowl — Breaston showed everyone that he was not just a one-year wonder.
“(Before) Northwestern, we’d had a bye week, and I was able to rest just a little bit,” Breaston said of the end of the season. “I took a whole month off (before the Rose Bowl), and I was very healthy. I was excited about playing in the Rose Bowl more than probably any other game. It was a great atmosphere, and I’m glad I performed the way I did.”
Setting a Rose Bowl record for total yardage with 315 yards could be the launching point for a season where he’s expected to provide the big play.
In every publication’s list of college football’s gamebreakers, the North Braddock, Penn., native is mentioned along with college football’s best. And although he has a reputation for being modest and quiet, he doesn’t discount his abilities, even believing he’s the fastest player on the team.
“I feel I can turn a short gain into a long gain,” the redshirt junior said. “I want to take a five-yard play and take it for a touchdown. That’s the type of playmaker I want to be.”
And while Breaston may be the gamebreaker, Avant has the sticky hands and possesses the heart and determination that keep a team chugging during the year. When he sprained both his ankle and his knee against Ohio State in 2003, he was moved to tears because he was unable to play. But as he was carted off, he pumped his fists and raised his arms, urging the crowd to cheer and encouraging his teammates to keep going without him.
“Jason Avant is the heart and soul of this team,” Breaston said. “He’s what Michigan’s about; he goes out there with a great attitude.”
Much like Breaston, Avant’s junior year numbers did not measure up to those from previous years, but he showed up when it counted most, including a five-yard touchdown catch against Michigan State last season.
Avant and Breaston clearly have the talent, but can they carry the receiving corps?
Although that is a looming question for the Wolverines, neither Breaston nor Avant has changed his approach to the season.
“I’ve been working to be ready at any point,” Breaston said. “I just think this season is getting conditioning down because I’m doing punt returns, kick returns, doing all those things. Now I’m a full-time receiver. I’m getting my conditioning down.”
Said Avant: “I didn’t really approach it different. I work hard in the offseason. Time goes on and keep doing the same things I’ve been doing.”
Their preparation may be the same but their roles are different. Avant is leading not only the receivers but the whole team — his teammates elected him offensive captain this summer.
“I think he has abilities, but I think you have to start with a competitive attitude,” coach Lloyd Carr said. “He makes it very obvious that he wants to win. If you really want to win, you put the goals of the team ahead of everything.”
Although Breaston is not a captain, he has stepped up his leadership role as well, including helping the freshman receivers adjust.
“Breaston helped with the transfer from quarterback to receiver,” freshman Antonio Bass said. “That’s somebody you can follow.”
Avant and Breaston have the talent, attitude and leadership to make everyone forget — even if only for a season — that Edwards is gone. It’s time for the younger brothers to grow up and take charge of the household.