The Michigan receiver caught the ball near the left sideline and quickly moved away from the cornerback attempting to tackle him. After eluding the initial defender’s shaky grip and running to the outside, he juked his next obstacle, the free safety, to the inside. The Wolverine beat a third would-be tackler before he was eventually dragged down at the end of a 21-yard gain.
On the very next play, the quarterback got the ball to a different wideout. This time the pigskin went to the right flat, where the offensive player slipped the same cornerback from the previous play. A linebacker tried his best to corral the threat, but he was made to look silly when he flew by his intended target on a cutback. Finally, a group of gang-tacklers managed to bring the ball carrier to the turf after a pickup of 12 yards.
Most fans are accustomed to seeing this caliber of athleticism from redshirt junior receiver Steve Breaston, but the names of each of the above-mentioned Wolverines are significantly more obscure. The fourth-quarter plays came courtesy of true freshmen Mario Manningham and Antonio Bass, respectively. Saturday’s game against Eastern Michigan served as Bass’s offensive debut. Even though Manningham has lined up out wide in each of Michigan’s first three games this season, he has served strictly as a backup. But despite its inexperience, the first-year duo is turning heads early on.
“I am truly impressed that (Manningham and Bass) have picked up what they’ve picked up so fast,” redshirt junior receiver Carl Tabb said. “I know for me, I had a year, and the second year was still difficult. So I can only imagine what it’s like having to learn the offense in such a short amount of time and to be proficient at it. So that speaks to their work ethic and their willingness to listen. They’re taking all the help they can get, and you can just see the results of all that hard work paying off.”
Manningham and Bass have benefited from a leg injury suffered by sophomore wideout Adrian Arrington in the season opener. Coupled with the fact that redshirt freshman Doug Dutch missed last week’s game due to illness, extenuating circumstances have thrust the freshmen into the limelight. Still, coach Lloyd Carr is quick to point out that they are far from polished playmakers.
“(Injuries) gave us an opportunity that we really were looking for, and that was to play Mario Manningham more and to get Antonio Bass into the game,” Carr said. “We were able to do that, and I think they made some mistakes in there. They are not where they need to be in terms of understanding all of the nuances of their position. But certainly they will learn from that experience. I think both of them did some good things.”
Bass, a Jackson native, did more than simply catch the lateral from Matt Gutierrez, who was inserted at quarterback for Chad Henne at the start of the second half. The receiver also took two snaps at quarterback, rushing twice from under center for a combined eight yards and a first down. It wasn’t an unusual role for Bass, who played quarterback at Jackson High School. But his position shift displayed the versatility of this year’s incoming receiving corps.
“It felt great to help out the team and do the little things I can do to help the team win,” Bass said.
Early in the third quarter against Eastern, Manningham made a highlight-reel grab when he cut across the middle and tipped Gutierrez’s throw to himself with his right hand, racing 14 yards downfield in the process. Against Notre Dame, Manningham, who hails from Warren, Ohio, gave Michigan fans a reason to cheer when he hauled in Henne’s late touchdown pass on fourth down to bring the Wolverines within seven points. Michigan’s quarterbacks are thrilled at the opportunity to deliver the ball to the talented twosome.
“The more guys that can contribute, the better we’re going to be,” Gutierrez said. “The young guys are stepping in and doing a great job. Every time I turned around, one of them was making a play or hustling downfield. They work hard, they want to get better (and) they’re improving every day in practice. As you can see, they have playmaking ability. So it’s exciting for the offense to see that.”
Said Henne: “They’re legitimate. They’re fast kids. They’re out there to make plays. Whenever you put the ball in their hands, they’re going to make the play and make somebody miss.”