2 wide receivers emerge as top targets for Michigan football in Ronnie Bell’s absence

Roman Wilson, Cornelius Johnson sharing stage as Michigan’s best receivers

Michigan's Roman Wilson catches a pass in front of Wisconsin's Caesar Williams during the second half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 2, 2021, in Madison, Wis. (AP Photo/Morry Gash) (Morry Gash, Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

ANN ARBOR, Mich. – When Michigan football lost No. 1 wide receiver Ronnie Bell for the season, there were a handful of candidates to assume a larger role.

Would it be Jackson State transfer Daylen Baldwin? Return specialist A.J. Henning? How about talented freshmen Christian Dixon or Andrel Anthony?

Four games later, Cade McNamara appears to have settled on his two favorite targets: Roman Wilson and Cornelius Johnson.

READ: Michigan earns massive win at Wisconsin, but not all questions have been answered

It’s no surprise to see Johnson step into this role. He finished second only to Bell in catches and receiving yards last season while leading all wide receivers in scores.

Johnson is exactly what the coaching staff envisioned when he committed to the Wolverines out of high school: a combination of size and speed who can get behind the defense or make tough catches in traffic.

Through five games, the junior leads Michigan in catches, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns. He’s averaging 24.5 yards per catch and resembles a legitimate WR1.

Michigan's Cornelius Johnson catches a touchdown pass over Wisconsin's Faion Hicks during the second half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 2, 2021, in Madison, Wis. Michigan won 38-17. (The Associated Press 2021)

But it wasn’t Johnson who saved Michigan against Wisconsin. That distinction belongs to Wilson.

Though he was overshadowed by Henning in the 2020 recruiting class, Wilson is one of the fastest players on Michigan’s roster. As a true freshman last year, he got his feet wet with nine catches for 122 yards and a touchdown.

Wilson’s speed is as advertised, but what’s most impressive about the sophomore is how reliable he’s been in terms of route running and securing the ball.

McNamara wasn’t exactly on target early in the Wisconsin game, missing behind Baldwin and Johnson on a couple of passes and under-throwing Donovan Edwards deep down the field. None of those passes were perfect, but they all bounced off the hands of the intended receivers and could have been caught.

The play after Edwards’ drop, which would have been a touchdown if McNamara hit him in stride, Wilson caught a pass on third and 14 to set up a much more manageable fourth down situation. On fourth and two from the Wisconsin 40-yard line, McNamara went Wilson’s way again to keep the drive alive.

That set up a flea flicker from McNamara to Johnson -- a 34-yard dime to open the scoring. Everyone remembers the touchdown, but Wilson’s catches on the two prior plays are what made it possible.

Wilson made another big play on the first drive of the second half, with Michigan leading 13-10. The Wolverines were facing a third and 10 near midfield when McNamara found Wilson for a 38-yard gain to turn a potential punt into a red zone opportunity.

Michigan’s receivers had failed to secure a number of jump balls earlier in the game, but Wilson -- who created quite a bit of separation from his defender but had to come back to the ball -- made the best (and most important) catch of the day.

Four plays later, J.J. McCarthy scored what would prove to be the game-winning touchdown.

Wilson was Michigan’s best offensive player Saturday, his only mistake coming on an illegal touching penalty when the game was all but decided. Johnson might have caught both of McNamara’s touchdown passes, but Wilson made drive-extending plays and led the team with six catches and 81 yards.

Quarterbacks show who they trust in those critical moments. For McNamara, Wilson is clearly that guy.

Michigan desperately needed someone to step up after Bell’s injury. Both Johnson and Wilson answered the call.

About the Author:

Derick is the Lead Digital Editor for ClickOnDetroit and has been with Local 4 News since April 2013. Derick specializes in breaking news, crime and local sports.