Preview 2015: Wide Receiver

Submitted by Brian on August 28th, 2015 at 11:11 AM

Previously: Podcast 7.0. The Story. Quarterback. Running Back.

[NOTE! This section uses the UFR catch chart. Passes are rated on a three point scale for catchability. 3: routine. 2: moderate. 1: difficult. There's also a zero for times when the player was thrown to without any chance of a reception.]

Depth Chart

WR Yr. WR Yr. SLOT Yr. Flex Yr.
Amara Darboh Jr.* Jehu Chesson Jr.* Grant Perry Fr. Jake Butt Jr.
Moe Ways Fr.* Drake Harris Fr.* Brian Cole Fr. Ian Bunting Fr.*
Jaron Dukes So.* Da'Mario Jones Jr. Jabrill Peppers Fr.* Khalid Hill So.*

[NOTE: though flex tight ends are listed above since they will fill some of the WR snaps they are addressed in the TE & Friends post, not here.] 

Last year's WR corps was a bit like the famous Braylon/Avant/Breaston trio if those guys had been coached by a potato and inserted into a disaster of an offense and gradually lost their will to live and halfway through the season they accidentally left Breaston in Piscataway and Breaston had to fend off a pair of cartoonishly dumb burglars with a series of elaborate traps.

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artist's impression via Seth

This year's WR corps is down the Braylon and Breaston equivalent-type-substances, leaving only a substantially more unproven version of Avant, Jehu Chesson, and a bunch of guys who have seen maybe six snaps between them.

But Drake Harris maybe? Shh. You'll spook the hamstring. Let's be nice to the hamstring. Good hamstring. Does hamstring want a treat? Yes it does. Nice hamstring.

OUTSIDE RECEIVER

Rating: 2.

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[Patrick Barron]

As soon as Devin Funchess declared for the NFL draft, AMARA DARBOH became this year's presumptive #1 wide receiver. Normally that would be met with mild optimism since Darboh is a touted recruit entering his redshirt junior year with decent production. Also he did this:

But in the crater left after last year's offense got done with our brains it's hard to be positive about anything in the micro. (The macro, of course: HARBAUGH.)

In the tortured analogy above, Darboh is our substantially more unproven Avant. Avant was of course a quality possession receiver and slant merchant who is not much of a threat to take the top off a defense. When Darboh had a catchable ball come his way, he looked fairly similar:

He is not likely to be as good as Avant because Avant is 100 out of 100 in certain skills. Darboh might be very good and still a standard deviation below that level of performance.

[After THE JUMP: DON'T ALARM THE HAMSTRING]

While Darboh has an encouraging start in some of those departments, there was also a certain disrespect issued him.

That was deep into a blowout so the corner might less worried about getting beat deep, but even so it's hard to imagine Mario Manningham getting that treatment, ever. Against top corners it was occasionally hard for him to get separation. Sometimes it didn't matter because he found the ball and made a nice adjustment; he is unlikely to become the kind of guy you have to bracket or play very soft.

Darboh was good at blasting through press coverage and had reliable hands. Through Indiana last year I had him with one flat-out drop and he had fine numbers on tough catches. His blocking wasn't as flashy as Chesson's but for the most part he got the job done. He projects as a solid #2 receiver in an offense that doesn't have a #1 unless Drake Harris is… shhhh don't spook the hamstring.

The good news is that Darboh ended the year strongly. The first half of his season was six catches against Miami (Not That Miami) and almost nothing else. He started to pick things up against Penn State and established a new level of performance for himself:

  • First six games: 11 catches, 148 yards.
  • Last six games: 25 catches, 325 yards.

His catch rate wasn't great; I attribute almost all of that to problems with the offense since when I charted his receptions I found his hands to be a major positive. This is possibly because Darboh is a mutant.

“He has an extra muscle on his forearm that makes sure he secures the catch,” Funchess said.

Pardon?

“Yeah, an extra muscle.”

As a mutant with decent skills and a skillset that should mesh well with his quarterback's, Darboh is set for something approximating a breakout year. He should be Michigan's most frequent target on the outside—Jake Butt may challenge him for overall supremacy—and he'll do well when he fights his way open.

Downfield proficiency may not be on the way. Darboh projects as a Hemingway-type deep threat if he projects as one at all, and Rudock isn't a big fan of throwing it into coverage so your guy can go get it. He should still get 50 or 60 catches for a decent YPC as he runs through a number of tackles thanks to Rudock's pinpoint short stuff and his ability to muscle his way into a slant.

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[Eric Upchurch]

Past Darboh it's anyone's guess who gets whatever wide receiver snaps remain after Harbaugh moves half the team to tight end. JEHU CHESSON is the veteran option, and if Harbaugh's after blocking he has made a nice case for himself by littering various run plays with pancaked cornerbacks:

[Ignore the highlight box on this one. Chesson is the WR to the top of the field.]

That was not an aberration. Chesson has been a terrific edge blocker for a couple years now…

Jehu Chesson gif[1]

…when he was going after the right guy. More than once during the seasons he made inexplicable decisions on bubble screens. He wasn't alone in that (here's Darboh with a similar error), but it was more frequent with him, and this was the worst of all:

If I recall correctly, when I went over that play my reaction was a grim snort directed not at Chesson but the program.

That's the wide receiver screen equivalent of covering a punt with ten guys or throwing a pass directly into the chest of a defensive back. It's bad; by that point in the Hoke era it had become impossible to separate out any individual failings from the wider incompetence. I can only assume he'll be more consistent in that department.

That we've gotten this deep into a discussion of a wide receiver without actually talking about, you know, catching things is indicative of the state of the offense last year. Chesson was barely targeted. When he was things went okay, but he had a tendency to drop somewhat difficult balls. I was also a bit suspicious of his routes. Sometimes it seemed like he was imprecise, ending up too close to teammates. This take from last year hasn't changed much:

Unfortunately, Chesson showed his inexperience on his two deep targets; he should have been able to shield the corner off the ball on the first one and misjudged the second, possibly because he'd just been chewed out about shielding the ball earlier in the game.

The proverbial light needs to go on.

Camp chatter has not focused much on Chesson, save for the occasional mention of inconsistency and a general disquiet about the receiving corps. His speed gets mentioned on the regular; usually there is a follow up about how he hasn't put it all together yet. It is clear he is being challenged for his job by Drake Harris, and with Grant Perry gathering constant praise I wouldn't put it past him to yank playing time away from Chesson.

Even so he should get his fair share of time and 20 to 30 catches. But the main reason he's listed in the starters is trepidation about someone else's legs.

BACKUPS

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[Bryan Fuller]

Apparently this is a thing we're doing now with the X-Files poster. Last year Shane Morris got the I WANT TO BELIEVE treatment. Also this year. For 2015 we're adding DRAKE HARRIS [recruiting profile]. Specifically, Drake Harris's hamstrings.

Few muscles in the history of Michigan football have been as persistently persnickety. Thanks to his hamstrings, Harris went from an all-destroying high school Braylon with 2000(!) receiving yards as a junior and offers from the universe to a spectator for the better part of three years. Occasionally they'd heal up long enough for Harris to generate a little bit of hope. Inevitably they would tighten up or break down again, and the cycle would start all over. The trolling was almost too perfect. Drake Harris had Gamergate: The Limbs.

It got so bad that whispers about a medical hardship started up in spring practice when Harris again could not go full speed. The Harrises made a last ditch effort to get Drake ready for fall camp. It was a Hail Mary. And then:

"He's killing it at practice," one source close to it told us. "One day they kept throwing different DBs at him to see who could shut him down, and no one could - including Mr. Peppers."

And then:

Heard he caught two touchdowns in practice yesterday and one "spectacular" grab that got a certain head coach pretty fired up.

And then:

"Drake Harris looked really good. He looked explosive out there."

And then:

Harris is 100% healthy and has been participating in every drill, rep, lift and challenge the coaches have set forth. In terms of health, there seems to be zero concern about the hamstrings that have plagued him the last two seasons.

Don't do this to me, man. That first one is the ludicrously optimistic Rivals guy, but with Scout and 247 also making approving noises there is a veritable groundswell of chatter, all of it pointing to Drake Harris suddenly and thrillingly assuming the mantle of the #1 jersey in spirit if not number. The latest update from Sam Webb suggests that he's going to start on Thursday no matter the health of the other receivers.

Since Harris has barely played in the last three years we might as well revisit the things people were saying about him when he was the nation's #2 WR recruit and everybody with a football program was throwing offers at him:

…has to be accounted for by opposing defenses every pass play. Harris has the speed and agility to take any pass to the house, with a Randy Moss-like vertical leap on deep balls. Harris can stretch the defense and blow by defensive backs while making it look easy.

Has truly elite ball skills. Height, leaping ability and body control allow him to go up and adjust to passes most would not come down with.

great frame at 6-foot-4, along with a huge vertical that allows him to go overtop of defenders to make a catch. Harris also has unique ball skills, where he can naturally catch a pass over his shoulder or go get it.

So… yeah. Could be pretty pretty good.

Michigan's coaches have been loathe to even mention anyone on the roster other than Jabrill Peppers, but when Harbaugh surfaced the Blue October yesterday he did not shy away from praising Harris to the moon:

Drake Harris has been a guy who’s struggled with injuries. Can you talk bout how he’s progressed?

“Yeah, he has, Drake Harris has, done a really fine job. You’ll see Drake Harris on Thursday night, God willing and the creek don’t rise. He’s doing a nice job. He’s been really, really sharp. Really good. It’s important to him. He’s been healthy and he’s competing. Strong and good all camp, and we’re excited about him every day. He’s somebody that really from where we were in spring ball to where we now are…he’s one of those youngsters who’s going to make our football team better.”

Harris is by far the biggest X-factor on the whole team. His sudden rise as soon as he got healthy and the evident skills he possesses mean he could be an impact player of the exact variety Michigan appears to lack: the explosive downfield threat. Or he could evaporate entirely, whether it's because his hamstrings betray him again or he's too rusty or he's too slight to get off a college-level jam.

I have no idea what to expect, and I don't think anyone else does either. If any readers are inclined to do a deal with the devil, this would be the one to make.

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Ways had a slightly tougher matchup than Darboh in the spring game [Fuller]

With the frankly weird and more than a little alarming flip of Freddy Canteen to cornerback, Michigan's options past Harris are slim. MOE WAYS [recruiting profile] is likely the top guy. Of all the second-string WRs he looked the most plausible in the spring game; he also performed well in last year's fall scrimmage. Ways is in the Darboh/Hemingway mold, a big strapping leaper who can go get contested balls and sports a large catching radius.

He was downgraded as a recruit because he wasn't very good at catching the ball as a junior. Tim Sullivan:

"He's basically a high school version of Braylon Edwards, where he drops easy passes but then makes the astounding play. He's just inexperienced. But it'll come, and when it does, he'll be really, really good."

He improved on that and after a redshirt year he should have considerably more polish. Unfortunately there has been little chatter about him; given the state of the WR corps and the finger issue that's held Darboh out for a little bit here there probably would have been some mention of him if he was pressing for time. Instead Harris blew by him.

Ways will get some time and introduce himself with maybe ten catches.

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[Upchurch/Fuller]

Classmates JARON DUKES [recruiting profile] and DAMARIO JONES [recruiting profile] are also vying for time. Neither has generated any practice buzz. While Dukes caught the lone touchdown of the spring game, even that was dodgy as he double-caught a simple fade against poor damn Dennis Norfleet; earlier that day he'd turned a first down into an interception by allowing a Shane Morris zinger to doink off his helmet. Jones got a little playing time last year, catching one ball for 11 yards.

With a ton of tight end snaps on the way and Grant Perry—about whom more in just a second—garnering early raves for his play it seems unlikely either breaks through. Jones, who has a reputation as a shifty guy of use underneath, has a better shot than Dukes, a rangy downfield type with close analogues clearly in front of him.

SLOT: HOLD ME CLOSER, TINY DANCER

Rating: NEGATIVE INFINITY

Before we move on to people who are actually on the roster, allow me a moment.

Goodbye, Dennis Norfleet. You probably should have gone to West Virginia.

SLOT: NEW FACES BY DEFAULT

Rating: 2.

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Grant Perry has a ton of experience for a freshman

With Norfleet due to win the D-II version of the Heisman this fall, Michigan turns to youth. They have no choice. Unless you count Damario Jones, which would be dubious, the number of slot receivers Hoke recruited is one. That guy just exited the roster.

Freshmen ahoy, then. Buzz out of fall camp has held that GRANT PERRY [recruiting profile] grabbed the spot by the throat immediately upon his arrival in Ann Arbor. An example from 24/7's Steve Lorenz:

Perry has been having an awesome camp so far. … Perry has been taking his slot reps exclusively with the first team. It's appearing more and more that the Brother Rice product is going to see the field early and often inside.

Guys get rotated up and down for a lot of reasons in camp, so I often take "player X is running with the ones" with a grain of salt. At some point you have sufficient grains to build a little statue of Grant Perry grabbing a ball off his shoetops and can pencil him into the lineup.

one practice observer said he has been the most impressive freshman to date

has consistently been mentioned among the offense’s top performers during the first two weeks of practice. 

I'm hearing it'sd currently Darboh, Chesson and then Grant Perry as the top slot guy.

We reached that point a couple weeks ago. At the open practice, Perry was getting redzone snaps ahead of Chesson. He's mostly working in the slot as a Dileo-type who will go get you a third and medium conversion, but given the state of things on the outside he will be an option there if his ability to get separation holds up.

Perry isn't that big. He isn't that fast. He is just a natural receiver who caught a full third of fellow freshman Alex Malzone's attempts last year en route to an all-time, any-class state of Michigan record for receptions. That number: 105. Even though he's a true freshman, Perry may find erosion to be more of a problem than experience. I mean, this highlight reel is long:

In it, Perry demonstrates that if you get the ball into a place he can catch it, he will do so, and then he'll keep running some. Freshmen wide receivers rarely make any sort of impact except in times of extreme need—Manningham and Odoms were the most recent to do so—but this is one of those when it comes to slot receiver.

Perry's production is somewhat dependent on players other than himself, but he should find himself somewhere between third and sixth in receptions on the team, hopefully all of them for seven yards when Michigan needs six.

BACKUPS

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[Bryan Fuller]

Functionally, the backups here are mostly tight ends. If a second slot receiver actually sees time it will be fellow freshman BRIAN COLE [recruiting profile]. Cole is a ridiculous athlete

"…really impressive on the hoof.  Big, strong and fast. Good height, long arms and has huge upside for frame development over time. He is an explosive 0 to 60 player with great feet and a second gear. Possesses an ideal combination of physical prowess and speed with excellent agility on both sides of the football. … When he gets to the second level he can be a hold your breath type of guy."

…who spent his high school career playing tailback in an offense that was allergic to throwing the ball. He's got a long way to go, and after an initial burst of hype he's faded a bit as his mistakes get remembered more often than his wow experiences. Sam Webb reported that he was "up and down" in camp but "the most special talent" they have at receiver; sounds about right.

If Cole is a Dileo analogue, Cole is closer to Breaston at the moment: skinny, super athletic, transitioning from a different position. Breaston never really developed into an outside receiver—that period in the immediate aftermath of Braylon's departure saw Breaston get open deep a ton… and then drop all passes over his shoulder—and that could be Cole's fate as well.

Or he could develop under a coach that's pretty good at developing folks. Long term, the 6'2", speedy Cole is destined for the outside. He was actually moved there for a period this fall. Right now he may be best suited for screens and acting as a decoy; he'll probably play, get everyone hyped up with a couple of eyebrow-raising runs after the catch, and take a bundle of hype into 2016.

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[Eric Upchurch]

And then, you know… that guy.

No evidence that Michigan will deploy JABRILL PEPPERS [recruiting profile] on offense has escaped the sub, but on an offense crying out for explosiveness, uh, I mean, you know

I'm just sayin'.

If and when Michigan does deploy Peppers his best role on offense is as an Ohio State-style H. Think Jalin Marshall, not a tight end. In the context of a pro style offense that means Peppers is the guy getting the jet sweeps that Wisconsin likes to run, and going out on routes that may or may not work out. As a dumpoff option he appeals.

So he'd be a slot receiver who can take a handoff. I'm betting it happens at some point.

Comments

Brofessor

August 28th, 2015 at 11:35 AM ^

I know you're trying to keep these realistic and not build undo hype but every one of the previews makes me more anxious to see these guys play and more optimistic about the season. I really think the coaching was the biggest missing piece and that things are going to come together well sooner than most of us expect.

pdgoblue25

August 28th, 2015 at 11:42 AM ^

I want it to be true too bad, both for Drake and selfishly for myself.

(unfortunately the pessimistic Cleveland fan inside of me thinks, "Someone who hasn't played football in 3 years was able to vault in front of our current receivers in a matter of months?")

Keebs

August 28th, 2015 at 11:45 AM ^

I expect that point to be some time into the OSU game.  That wrinkle in the playbook is just too powerful to deploy any earlier in the season.  Give Urban no reason to suspect Jabrill will line up on offense, and every reason to actively only expect the regulars there.  Practice it all season, get it down to perfection as a sub package, and only unveil it some time during the OSU game when we need a spark.  It could be the difference in the game--the last couple of years have been very close and something like that could have made the difference in our favor.  If we could hold out on it until after halftime, that would be even better. Give them no opportunity to adjust.

jmdblue

August 28th, 2015 at 11:54 AM ^

1) Yes, if it helps keep Drake's hamstrings in operating order, I may be willing to take a trip down to the crossroads.

2) Brian, how long did you agonize over the use of "Blue October"?

God, we're getting close.

Wolverine In Iowa

August 28th, 2015 at 12:05 PM ^

Imagine this:  Harris torches MSU in October.  That would be an uplifting experience for so many reasons.  I just wish he had about 12-17 more pounds on his frame.

As I have stated before, I like Darboh, and I hope that he can become another Adrian Arrington (Iowa WR's, represent!) - please have a great season, Amara!

jmdblue

August 28th, 2015 at 12:06 PM ^

Over the years we've had several legendary guys who were absolutely outstanding in high school, but due to lack of size or speed didn't garner a ton of attention until it turned out they were too good to keep off the college field as well.  Off the top of my head these would include Andy Cannavino, Mike Hart, and Jamie Morris.  Here's hoping Grant Perry joins their ranks

MattWantsU

August 28th, 2015 at 12:12 PM ^

1. That Drake Harris pic is weird.  I want to believe ... that he is going to be a great receiver or that he has a sizeable crank?

2. I love Grant Perry's shiftiness.  His change of speed on his routes are awesome, and I think Rudock's style (our starting QB, btw) will connect really well with him.

Valar Morghulis

August 28th, 2015 at 1:40 PM ^

I'm still not buying the Freddy-to-CB thing.  I have no factual evidence to back up the reason I don't buy it but it's just hard for me to believe that.  If I was tech-savvy enough to insert the Freddy Footwork gif or video I would... Simply amazing feet!

bronxblue

August 28th, 2015 at 1:49 PM ^

I feel like I'm the biggest hater in the world about Amara, but those splits are goosed immensely by him going for 9 catches and 107 yards against IU. Take that out and he's had basically the same numbers. The positive is that he did the latter half against Big Ten teams, but I'm still worried about him as a #1 based on the evidence thus far.

RuebenRileyonRye

August 28th, 2015 at 9:41 PM ^

You can roast me if I'm wrong, but I believe in Harris. I saw him on the football field a few times his junior year and saw him on the hard floor as well. He's got unbelievable ability and gifts of athleticism from the gods of things fast and verticalness.