Michigan wide receivers could be dominant if healthy Tarik Black returns down stretch

Black missed first 7 games before brief appearance against Michigan State

Michigan football wide receiver Tarik Black makes a catch against Cincinnati (Joe Robbins/Getty Images).

ANN ARBOR, Mich. - Michigan football faces another stiff challenge this weekend as it hosts Penn State after the bye interrupted a seven-game winning streak.

As the season enters November, Michigan is relatively healthy. Only three major contributors -- Rashan Gary, Tarik Black and Juwann Bushell-Beatty -- are questionable as the Wolverines face the final third of the regular season.

Michigan's defense, even without Gary, has been the best in the country. Bushell-Beatty is a big part of Ed Warinner's improved offensive line.

But Black's potential impact is a bit more difficult to predict.

As a true freshman, Black was off to a nice start in 2017, catching 11 passes for 149 yards and a touchdown through three games. He was a bright spot in an anemic passing game, and his injury further doomed the Michigan offense.

It's been one year, one month and 16 days since Black caught a pass for Michigan, but it seems as if that streak might end Saturday. Jim Harbaugh said he's optimistic the redshirt freshman could play a larger role against Penn State.

Black returns to a much different-looking Michigan offense. Most notably, the Wilton Speight-John O'Korn duo from early last season has been replaced by Shea Patterson.

Black was Speight's favorite target at the beginning of 2017, and it's unclear how he'll click with Patterson in game situations. But if the two can develop a connection, Patterson is a much better passer overall.

Michigan also has more options in the passing game than it did 14 months ago. Black's classmates Donovan Peoples-Jones and Nico Collins have turned into the team's top two receivers.

Peoples-Jones, the No. 1 wide receiver in the 2017 class, leads the wideouts with 22 catches, 326 yards and six touchdown grabs. Only tight end Zach Gentry has more catches and yards.

Donovan Peoples-Jones catches a pass and avoids the tackle of Tre Person before scoring against Michigan State at Spartan Stadium on Oct. 20, 2018, in East Lansing, Michigan. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Black's injury thrust Collins into a much bigger role, as well. He's made 21 catches for 320 yards and two touchdowns, including a clutch score on third down against Michigan State.

Collins and Patterson have developed a strong downfield connection, and the sophomore has made four catches longer than 30 yards. Michigan didn't have that type of deep threat last season.

Collins and Black were both four-star recruits in the 2017 class.

The excitement surrounding Black's potential return stems from his great start last year, but how will he fit into the picture after eight games?

Peoples-Jones, Collins and Gentry are responsible for 66 of Michigan's 132 catches and 978 of the team's 1,661 receiving yards this season.

Nico Collins makes a catch against Maryland on Oct. 6, 2018, at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

If Black picks up where he left off, this group could be extremely dangerous. He has the potential to be Michigan's best wide receiver, and that's significant considering how much Peoples-Jones and Collins have improved.

In passing situations, Michigan could line up with Karan Higdon, Gentry, Peoples-Jones, Collins and Black on the field with Patterson. That's the vision Harbaugh had when he brought in a loaded 2017 recruiting class.

The Wolverines currently rank 91st in the country with 207.6 passing yards per game, but the stats are a bit misleading because only 15 teams pass less frequently than Michigan.

In fact, Michigan ranks 24th in yards per pass attempt, one of the best indicators of pass game efficiency. The Wolverines are 20th in completion percentage, and only 19 teams have thrown fewer interceptions.

Patterson has quietly built a very strong passing attack in Ann Arbor, and if Black returns to the form he teased last year, it could be a massive November boost.

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