Michigan wide receivers coach Jeff Hecklinski told all of the receivers the same thing before Saturday’s game: “You’ve got to win all of the jump balls.”
Junior Hemingway was listening intently.
In that moment, when the ball is hanging, Hemingway is taken back to his high school basketball roots in South Carolina. Back to when he played in the post, boxing out bigger players for rebounds. Back to when he played everywhere on the floor, just because he could jump so high.
The 6-foot-2, 235-pound receiver — who has become the unofficial resident jump-ball expert for the Wolverines for the past two seasons — has a recipe for how best to execute.
“You have to beat the (defensive back) to the highest point first,” Hemingway said Monday. “Because if you wait until it comes down too low, he’ll have a chance to high-point it before you do.
“It’s just basically trying to get your body in front of him, or I guess, well — I’m kind of big. So I can put a little more body on them. But it’s just like getting a rebound in basketball. Just have to position yourself and go up and get it.”
Not once, but twice, did Hemingway see a ball underthrown descending towards him from the heavens against Notre Dame. Both times the game was also in the balance.
Down 14-0, after Michigan had just picked off Notre Dame quarterback Tommy Rees, and with junior quarterback Denard Robinson struggling mightily to start the game, Hemingway found himself in single coverage. Robinson had a neat pocket to work with after the play action, but still couldn’t find an open receiver he liked until he found Hemingway 40 yards down field, with just Fighting Irish cornerback Gary Gray in coverage.
The pass was high and away, where only a rebounder like Hemingway could jump and get it. Gray didn’t even make a play on the ball and didn’t even stop Hemingway from diving the final five yards for a touchdown.
“All summer we’ve been doing workouts and everything, (and) one thing I noticed about all our receivers — they know how to go and get the ball and attack the ball,” Robinson said after the game. “I knew Junior could get the ball. Once I threw it up, I knew he was going to come down with it.”
There’s no doubt memories of last season’s game-winning drive against Indiana played in Robinson’s head — when he hit Hemingway on a 42-yard underthrown jump ball with 21 seconds left in a tied game. The next play, Robinson scored the game-winning touchdown.
So down 24-21 against Notre Dame, having just forced another turnover, Robinson took another shot deep, looking for Hemingway. But he was covered like a pair of gloves by two Notre Dame defensive backs. Robinson threw it anyway.
Instead of leading Hemingway into trouble where the two defenders were farther up field, Robinson underthrew him and Hemingway leaped to make the same jump-ball catch once again.
By then, it was old hat. But that trust had to be a two-way street.
“I feel real comfortable (with) Denard,” Hemingway said. “The rest of the receivers feel the same way. The whole offense does. A lot of people said Denard, about the whole spread thing, about him being under center and stuff — and Denard has adjusted real good. We have a lot of faith in Denard.”
Robinson was taking big bites out of the Notre Dame defense, in large part due to plays his wide receivers were making on less-than-perfect passes. Hemingway added another 77-yard catch-and-run, to finish the day with three catches for 165 yards and that lone touchdown.
On the night Desmond Howard’s No. 21 was honored, it was fitting the current No. 21 caught almost everything that came his way.
“We know we’ve got to make sure we catch everything,” Hemingway said, referring to a few dropped passes the receivers had in the first half. “That’s one thing coach harped on in practice. … ‘Make every catch regardless of where it is.’
“If it’s in our vicinity, we’ve got to catch it.”