In passing for 294 yards against Massachusetts on Saturday, senior quarterback Denard Robinson did more than just produce in terms of sheer volume.
He also spread the ball around as well as he has at any point in his career, with nine different players catching passes throughout the game. It matched the highest total of different receivers that Robinson has hit in a single game since he began playing in offensive coordinator Al Borges’ hybrid pro-style system last season.
Part of that progress can be explained by Michigan’s opponent — the Minutemen don’t have the strongest of defenses, allowing the Wolverines to use more receivers than perhaps they would have against a more formidable opponent.
But after three games, it nevertheless seems that Michigan might have more options in the passing game than it thought it did going into the season.
“You know, the one thing (from) last week is I think (wide receiver is) probably one of the better positions on our team from a depth standpoint,” said Michigan coach Brady Hoke on Monday.
Wide receiver was a position of some concern after Junior Hemingway and Martavious Odoms graduated and Darryl Stonum was dismissed from the team after repeated legal offenses.
But junior Devin Gardner’s move from quarterback to wideout has helped ease those concerns. The Detroit native is the team’s leading receiver, with 155 yards, and three of his eight catches have been for touchdowns — his height and athleticism have made him a welcome target for Robinson.
Meanwhile, redshirt junior Jeremy Gallon has continued to be a solid option despite his diminutive frame. And freshman tight end Devin Funchess is emerging as one of the more dynamic threats that Michigan has had at the position in years, averaging just over 23 yards per catch in his first two career games.
And Robinson has shown an improved ability to find all those targets. He seems to be making better reads, and he’s also throwing with greater accuracy.
“I think this summer, the things he did made a huge difference,” said redshirt junior offensive tackle Taylor Lewan. “The way he was playing and just being more into his craft, and making better decisions and working on timing with the receivers every Saturday. Every chance he got, he called the receivers up to do that.”
Take Robinson’s improvements and add in the emergence of several new threats, as well as the steady play of some veterans, and it amounts to a pleasant surprise for the Wolverines when it comes to their passing game.
ANGER MANAGEMENT: The dissatisfaction with Michigan’s offensive line through the first three games has been made very clear, both by Hoke and the linemen themselves.
For his part, Lewan said Monday that he saw some improvement against Massachusetts, but repeated the familiar mantra about needing to improve.
“I think as an offensive line, we needed to see that we could do it,” Lewan said. “And now that we know that we can do it, we need to keep doing it, even when we play against the Notre Dames and all of the other big teams.”
Just what is the problem for Michigan’s big uglies? Technique — which is often the first word out of Hoke’s mouth, when talking about all of the team’s positions — is part of it.
But offensive line is also the most physical position in a very physical sport. That’s what Lewan is looking at.
“Technique will get you to the spot you need to go to, and then you have to be aggressive,” Lewan said. “You have to be physical. You got to play angry, a little nasty. I think our offensive line needs to do that a little more.”
BLOCKING IT OUT: The transition to wide receiver has been a relatively easy one for Gardner.
There are still some areas the junior is working on, though, especially blocking. Hoke lauded Gardner’s efforts as he tries to improve that aspect of his game, but also noted that it’s something he never had to do before.
And if Gardner has his way, it’s something he won’t have to do in the future if he eventually returns to quarterback, as he says he wants to do.
“I don’t feel like I’m ever going to be a person that loves to block,” Gardner said with a laugh. “That comes with the position. I don’t think I’ll ever love that.”
NOTES: Lewan brushed off the touchdown he scored on Saturday after picking up Robinson’s end zone fumble, saying “there’s nothing really exciting” about just falling on the ball, which is how he described it. It was the first score of his career, Lewan revealed.
Sophomore linebacker Desmond Morgan (head injury) and redshirt sophomore defensive tackle Richard Ash (unspecified “boo-boo”) should both return to action against Notre Dame, Hoke said. The coach also said that junior fullback Stephen Hopkins (hamstring) “may be ready” to play against Notre Dame, but fifth-year senior tight end Brandon Moore and sophomore defensive end Brennan Beyer, both of whom have knee sprains, are unlikely to play.