CHAMPAIGN — Whatever situation Steve
Breaston was in last year, the unthinkable seemed not just
possible, but probable.

Sharad Mattu
Sharad Mattu
After a spectacular freshman season, receiver Steve Breaston has struggled so far this year.

Punt returns? Breaston had a knack for weaving through traffic,
disappearing into the mass of tacklers and popping out the other
end. He ran back two punts for touchdowns, and put Michigan within
sight of the endzone countless other times.

Line up at quarterback and run the option? That’s how he
opened the scoring in the Wolverines’ battle against Ohio
State last year.

Catch a lateral from the quarterback and throw it back across
the field? With Michigan falling apart on offense and defense
against Minnesota a year ago, Breaston, a quarterback in high
school, turned his only pass last season into a touchdown.

No. 15 was responsible for eight touchdowns in all last year,
but points and yards drastically understated his impact. When he
had the ball, players and coaches on the sidelines and fans in the
stands held their breath in anticipation. His combination of jukes,
vision and speed almost seemed out of place in Michigan Stadium and
the Big Ten; he looked like he belonged on Miami or an SEC
team.

But that was last year. This season — at least so far
— has been a different story. The redshirt sophomore’s
yards per catch has dropped from 11.7 to 6.8 and his punt return
average has dropped from 13.8 to 8.1 yards.

What’s contributed to his struggles? Well, depending on
who you ask, Breaston’s biggest obstacle is simply getting
healthy. He had foot surgery during the summer and suffered a
“freak injury” when he broke a finger in his left hand
against Iowa earlier in the season. Even after Saturday’s
game, he was walking with a noticeable limp.

“I can’t imagine anybody being able to come back as
fast as he did,” Michigan coach Lloyd Carr said. “I
mean that bone was in two, and he had to have a plate and five
screws inserted, I think. He’s a study in toughness.
He’s not a big guy, but he’s got a big
heart.”

That’s fine, but then why does receiver Braylon Edwards
insist nobody should worry about Breaston? Why does receivers coach
Erik Campbell say: “Steve is fine. There’s nothing new
with him. Nothing different. Nothing wrong.”

What does Breaston himself have to say? Well, Michigan’s
reserved do-it-all star acts as if talking about his pain hurts
more than actually playing with the pain.

“It’s been tough,” Breaston conceded.
“But if I come out and play I have no excuses. As long as
I’m on the field, how I feel doesn’t matter. I’ve
just got to play my hardest and do what I’m capable of
doing.”

Another reason Breaston’s statistics have taken a dive has
to be his laughably predictable role when the Wolverines have the
ball.

Sure, Michigan’s offense is successful, but often times
it’s easy to see what’s coming. Any time Breaston is on
the field, whether he’s the first or third read, he seems to
take the same shallow route to the sidelines. And, 100 percent
healthy or not, it seems to take him so many moves to get past one
tackler, the second and third arrive before he’s even gotten
five yards.

It’s gotten to the point where it seems as though the
coaching staff fears that if it asks Breaston to run a route of any
kind, disaster will undoubtedly ensue. Aside from during
Michigan’s comeback attempt against Notre Dame, it’s
hard to remember a single time Breaston ran a deep pattern.

“I know how to run routes,” Breaston said.
“I’ve been coached, and I know how to play this
game.

“I know that my role is helping Braylon, Jason (Avant),
the running game and everybody else on the offense. If Braylon
catches a ball, I know I’m doing my job because I’m
bringing coverage.”

All Campbell had to say about Breaston’s role in the
offense was, “That’s just the way it is right
now.”

But regardless of how banged up he is and what his role and
stats are, Breaston is a threat that Michigan needs on every
play.

When he sat out against Indiana due to his injured finger, his
replacements — it took three people to do what he alone
normally does — caught a 40-yard touchdown pass, returned a
punt 79 yards for a score and a kick 97 yards. But it took just one
half in Michigan’s next game against Minnesota to get his
role entirely back.

That’s because everyone — teammates, coaches and
fans — looks at Breaston, thinks back to last year, blocks
out the Wolverines’ first seven games and says, “Just
one play, and everything will be back to normal.”

“He’s an ‘any play’ guy,” receiver
Jason Avant said. “If he keeps touching the ball one of these
times he’ll make something happen. When he’s got the
ball, there’s always a chance.”

If the Breaston of old is set to reappear, Saturday at Purdue
wouldn’t be a bad game to do it. Michigan hasn’t faced
a prolific offense like the Boilermakers’ this year, and
after Purdue’s loss to Wisconsin, it’ll be eager to
salvage its season.

“I always feel like if I’m on the field, I have the
chance to do something big,” Breaston said. “But
it’s really all about the team with me. I’m a team
player and this team is winning right now, so I’m happy and
have nothing to complain about. I love this team.”

 

Sharad Mattu can be reached
“mailto:atsmattu@umich.edu”>atsmattu@umich.edu.

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