Steve Breaston was missing in action until his dazzling 72-yard punt return against Eastern Michigan last Saturday, but he still hasn’t scored a touchdown this season.

Michigan Football

One week earlier against Notre Dame, Chad Henne had the worst game of his Michigan career. In the same game, Mike Hart aggravated an injury that has kept him off the field since.

The Michigan offense has given fans and media alike a lot to talk about over the past few weeks. But all that chatter has often overlooked the one constant for the Wolverines this season, and that’s Jason Avant.

In three games, the senior co-captain has quietly caught 22 passes for 310 yards – good enough to lead the Big Ten in both receptions and receiving yards. At this point last season, Avant had five receptions for 57 yards; in 2003, six catches for 79 yards. By any measure, the Chicago native is having a career year.

But many of us are missing it.

After Saturday’s game, most of the coverage focused on Henne rebounding from his woes against the Irish, and players like Antonio Bass and Max Martin seeing their first extensive action of the season. Few media outlets did more than mention Avant’s two touchdowns – the first time in his career he’s scored multiple touchdowns in a game.

Part of the reason is that, unlike many of his teammates, Avant has lived up to his preseason hype, maybe even exceeding it.

When Braylon Edwards moved on to the NFL after last season, Avant and Breaston jointly inherited his role as Michigan’s go-to receiver. While Breaston has struggled as a starter – catching five passes for 44 yards – Avant has excelled in his turn as the Wolverines’ most experienced skill-position player.

That’s one way an eight-reception, 93-yard, two-touchdown outing can go unnoticed.

But an even better explanation may be our own expectations of what a star receiver should be.

After three games last year, Edwards had 26 receptions, 350 yards and four touchdowns – remarkably similar to Avant’s numbers this season. Even though Avant is a Biletnikoff Award candidate this year, he has received a fraction of the attention Edwards got a season ago.

Because Avant has never been Michigan’s prime target in the end zone – with eight touchdowns in 35 career games – or a consistent deep-field threat, he’s always been less visible than Edwards, who recorded 39 touchdowns in his career.

Because Avant lacks Breaston’s elusiveness in the open field, he is rarely considered one of the nation’s top playmakers.

Avant is the reliable third-down receiver with Velcro hands who blocks like a fullback, sacrifices his body after almost every reception and cares more about the team than about himself. And that’s just not the type of player who becomes a star.

Look at the NFL. Many of the big-name receivers (Terrell Owens and Randy Moss, in particular) have equally big egos, which have alienated them from teammates and coaches. Avant displays none of the “me first” mentality that helped make Moss and Owens household names – or that, two seasons ago, led Lloyd Carr to limit Edwards’s playing time.

Like most great receivers, Avant surely wants the ball in his hands when the game is on the line. And he’s not opposed to end zone celebrations; he proved that after his one-handed grab at Northwestern in 2003.

But it’s hard to imagine Avant, who couldn’t stop cheering for Bass and Mario Manningham from the sideline last Saturday, doing anything to hurt his team, especially this season.

“It’s not a Biletnikoff thing; it’s a win for Michigan deal with me,” Avant said after the Wolverines’ win over Northern Illinois. “When I got selected as captain, every one of my goals individually went out the window. All I want to do is help the team win. That’s the biggest responsibility I have.”

And for the past four years, that’s exactly what Avant has done. Unfortunately, it’s probably the reason his accomplishments have gone relatively unnoticed.

Avant may never command the same attention as Edwards or Breaston. Because he’s not that type of player or that type of guy.

But he deserves it.

 

Wright can be reached at smwr@umich.edu.

 

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