ANN ARBOR, Mich. – With Michigan football about a month away, the hottest topic in Ann Arbor is new starting quarterback Joe Milton.
There’s good reason for that. Michigan fans have been desperate to find an elite quarterback for years, and it is the most important position on the field, after all.
But that’s not the only position that will look much different when the Wolverines travel to Minnesota to kick off the 2020 season.
Wide receiver attrition
It looks like the Wolverines will be without three of their top four wide receivers from a year ago. Donovan Peoples-Jones was drafted by the Cleveland Browns, Tarik Black transferred to Texas and Nico Collins has reportedly signed with an agent to prepare for the NFL.
That trio, which highlighted the team’s top-five 2017 recruiting class, combined for 96 catches, 1,490 receiving yards and 14 touchdowns last season.
So what would the receiving corps look like if Collins isn’t in the picture?
The most glaring issue is size. Collins is listed at 6-foot-4, Black at 6-foot-3 and Peoples-Jones at 6-foot-2. Michigan doesn’t have the big bodies at reciever to make up for those losses.
Of the team’s six remaining scholarship wide receivers, only one -- Cornelius Johnson -- is listed over 6 feet tall.
That’s not to say Michigan can’t still be dangerous at wide receiver. In fact, the personnel is a better fit for offensive coordinator Josh Gattis' scheme.
Gattis wants to get the ball to playmakers in space, and Michigan has no shortage of talent at the position.
Top returning options
Ronnie Bell will start the season as the No. 1 option after leading the team with 48 catches and 758 receiving yards last season. Bell, a former two-star recruit, came out of nowhere to steal the show from Peoples-Jones and Black, forming his own one-two punch with Collins.
After Bell, the players in this group are largely unproven.
Giles Jackson showed signs of his potential last season, catching nine passes for 142 yards and a touchdown. Jackson has great speed, poses a major threat in the return game and can be used all over the field. He carried the ball 10 times for 69 yards and a score in 2019.
Then there’s Johnson, who wasn’t much of a factor as a true freshman but was a four-star recruit and is listed at 6-foot-3.
Johnson’s underwhelming stat line was more about Michigan’s crowded receiver depth chart than any fault of his own. He cashed in on his rare opportunities, though, catching four passes for 61 yards and a score.
If Gattis wants to incorporate a bigger target on the outside, Johnson could be the top beneficiary of a Collins exit.
Don’t forget about Mike Sainristil, either. The 2019 offseason hype was out of control for the true freshman cornerback-turned-wideout, but when the season began, he was nowhere to be found.
But when he got a chance to play in blowouts, Sainristil performed well, catching three passes for 73 yards and a touchdown against Notre Dame and two passes for 21 yards against Michigan State.
Losing Collins would be a massive blow to Michigan’s offense, but it still has a steadying force in Bell, elite speed with Jackson and Sainristil and a possible replacement in Johnson. At the very least, there’s potential for Gattis to work with.
No matter who comes and goes, Michigan is always going to bring in new playmakers at the wide receiver position.
Last recruiting cycle, it was all about speed. Michigan landed two of the fastest offensive weapons in the class: A.J. Henning and Roman Wilson. Henning ran a verified 4.46 40-yard dash at The Opening Regional, and Wilson topped that by running a 4.37, according to 247 Sports.
Henning was one of the most coveted players in the 2020 class, with offers from Alabama, Ohio State, Georgia, Notre Dame and dozens of others. He follows the trend of many other recent Michigan commits in that he’s a versatile offensive weapon and a home run threat.
Michigan’s offense needs to be more explosive in 2020, and Henning should help in that regard.
Wilson stands out because he has great quickness to go with the elite speed. He embodies Gattis' “speed in space” mantra because as long as Michigan can get him the ball, there’s potential for him to turn any catch into a big gain.
It would be unfair to expect Michigan to get better at wide receiver after losing three top targets, but it feels like this group has the potential to put up bigger numbers.
Gattis was still implementing his offense last season, and most of these young receivers are guys he specifically targeted on the recruiting trail. They don’t all need to be better than Collins, Peoples-Jones and Black. If they’re simply a better fit in this scheme, the results could improve.
Milton will be a key factor, obviously. There have been times during the Jim Harbaugh era when his quarterbacks simply couldn’t get the ball to his playmakers, and that crippled Michigan’s offense.
If Milton falls victim to that same trend, it won’t matter how fast or elusive Jackson, Henning and company might be.
Harbaugh handed the reins of the offense over to Gattis a year ago, and now the pieces are falling into place. Michigan fans should get at least a glimpse of the future when this team takes the field.