A jubilant Roy Roundtree bounced back to the Michigan sideline after hauling in a 37-yard touchdown pass from Devin Gardner to put the Wolverines ahead of Iowa for good in the second quarter Saturday at Michigan Stadium.
Playing in his final game at the Big House, Roundtree had just caught his second touchdown of the season, and his first since Week 3. He rushed toward his teammates to celebrate on the sideline, then stopped short.
He spotted Paul Schmidt, the team’s head trainer, and gave him a wide smile.
“Visualize,” Roundtree told Schmidt.
Visualize. It was a concept Schmidt preached to Roundtree all season, according to Michigan radio analyst Doug Karsh, who relayed the story on the broadcast. The snap, the route, the catch. Visualize.
It was a proper send-off for Roundtree, a fifth-year senior whose peak at Michigan came when he was a sophomore, pulling in 72 catches for 935 yards and seven touchdowns. In the two years since then, he has just four scores on 44 catches, never coming close to his second-year totals.
And sometime before the Michigan football team broke fall camp three months ago, Gardner supplanted Roundtree.
Roundtree, wearing Desmond Howard’s No. 21 legend jersey, was expected to flourish at flanker this fall despite a disappointing 2011 season.
But Gardner made the transition from quarterback — his natural position — to receiver and suddenly, remarkably, became Michigan’s No. 1 receiver, emerging as senior quarterback Denard Robinson’s favorite target. He made 16 catches for 266 yards and four touchdowns in eight games.
He took catches away from Roundtree, who had just 13 catches for 175 yards, and redshirt junior slot receiver Jeremy Gallon. Gallon had three more catches than Gardner, but it was Gardner, the receiver transplant, who had emerged as the true deep threat.
When Robinson went down with an ulnar-nerve injury three weeks ago, the roles reversed. The receivers took over again, as Gardner transitioned back to quarterback.
After his first career start at Minnesota on Nov. 3, Gardner explained that moonlighting at receiver had aided his development at quarterback because he knew the tendencies of receivers, what they liked, what they didn’t.
In consecutive victories over Minnesota, Northwestern and Iowa, he helped them. They helped him right back.
Roundtree and Gallon both made highlight-reel catches in a last-minute comeback against the Wildcats a week ago, and Michigan’s receiving numbers have sky-rocketed. In the last three games, Gardner has passed for 234, 286 and 314 yards — three of Michigan’s top four passing totals of the season — and seven touchdowns.
And Roundtree and Gallon have been the main benefactors in the air game, combining 485 yards and two touchdowns on 28 catches. Against Iowa, both made five catches, with Gallon going for a game-high 133 yards and Roundtree for 83.
They were, at long last, the favorite targets once again.
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz, whose secondary was gashed again and again in the passing game, came away impressed with the receiving corps.
“They’ve got very good skilled players,” Ferentz said. “They have had that traditionally, and it looks to me like they’ve got it again. We didn’t do a great job keeping up with those guys when we were in the right coverage, then we dropped a couple coverages too, which made it really easy for him. Gardner did a good job finding them.”
Michigan coach Brady Hoke praised Gallon’s concentration, Roundtree’s corrections. Roundtree, who has been criticized for catching the ball with his body instead of out front with his hands, credited receivers coach Jeff Hecklinski’s training.
“Back in the spring is when Coach Heck had us (using) tennis balls and had all the wide receivers working on eye coordination,” Roundtree said. “It’s just something I really worked on this year, just using my hands away from my body. (It) really helps if the defender’s on your back.”
Hoke said one of the finest catches of the afternoon was an out-route to Roundtree along the sideline. Gallon led the downfield, vertical passing game with catches of 51, 31 and 31 yards.
“Roy made big plays, Gallon made big plays,” Gardner said.
Roundtree kept his response short. He was just having fun.
“It’s always fun catching balls, being a receiver,” he said.
When the clock came to a stop on Michigan’s decisive 42-17 victory over the Hawkeyes, Roundtree took his time leaving the turf. He shook hands, sang “The Victors” and slowly moved toward the tunnel.
Finally, he jogged toward the tunnel, grinning and high-fiving kids on both sides of the entrance. He disappeared into the tunnel for the final time in his career, finishing just the way he dreamt. Just the way he visualized.
— Nesbitt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter: @stephenjnesbitt.