ANN ARBOR, Mich. - The Michigan football team is expected to have a much more dangerous offense this season under Josh Gattis, and depth at wide receiver is one of its greatest weapons.
Michigan's offense got stagnant at times last year, often because opponents shut down the run and the passing attack was too archaic. With Gattis as offensive coordinator, the Wolverines are expected to take advantage of their most talented athletes.
Juniors Donovan Peoples-Jones and Nico Collins are at the top of the depth chart after combining for 1,244 yards and 14 touchdowns on 85 catches last season.
Peoples-Jones showed flashes of why he was the No. 1 high school wide receiver in the 2017 recruiting class, leading the team with 47 catches and eight touchdowns.
There's still more to tap into, though, as Michigan rarely made an effort to get him the ball in space with quick-hitting passes. Gattis has promised to do so more often with his #SpeedInSpace mantra.
Peoples-Jones was among the nation's leaders in yards per punt return last season, averaging 10 yards in 25 returns. That's a taste of what he can offer when he gets the ball in his hands with room to run.
Collins was the best receiver on the team last season, averaging 16.6 yards per catch and making big plays in the most important games.
Of his six touchdown catches, three came against rivals Ohio State and Michigan State. Collins also posted his four greatest yardage outputs against Ohio State, Florida, Northwestern and Notre Dame -- two rivals, the Peach Bowl opponent and a game in which Michigan trailed by three scores before needing to come back.
When quarterback Shea Patterson needed a big play, he went to Peoples-Jones and Collins. That will likely be the case again this season.
The X-factor in this year's receiving corps is Tarik Black, who missed the majority of his first two seasons with foot injuries. He only made four catches last season, though he did have a touchdown called back by a penalty.
Black returned to the field late in the season, but he wasn't able to fully integrate into the offense that had grown without him. Now, with a healthy offseason under his belt, Black is expected to join his 2017 classmates as a playmaker for the Wolverines.
Black caught 11 passes for 149 yards and a touchdown as a true freshman in the first three games of 2017. With his size and reliable hands, it shouldn't be difficult for him to settle back into a significant role.
The only other returning wide receiver who made a significant contribution in 2018 is true sophomore Ronnie Bell, who caught eight passes for 145 yards and two touchdowns in his first year on campus.
Bell was perhaps the least heralded recruit in the 2018 class, but he was one of only three true freshman to appear in more than four games last season.
He didn't get the ball often, but when he did, Bell was a big-play machine. His first catch went for a 56-yard touchdown against Nebraska. He averaged 18.1 yards per catch on the year.
Bell is sandwiched between the three talented juniors and three incoming freshmen, but he won't be forgotten in Gattis' offense, which will take advantage of his speed and elusiveness.
Now, back to those incoming freshmen.
Jim Harbaugh landed a trio of talented pass catchers, though they come with much less fanfare that Peoples-Jones, Collins and Black.
The group is led by former three-star cornerback recruit Mike Sainristil, who was the No. 1 player from Massachusetts but didn't move the needle much, especially as a potential offensive weapon.
But according to the coaches, the early enrollee has earned a major role in the offense as a true freshman and could even be the starting slot receiver when the Wolverines take the field Aug. 31 against Middle Tennessee State.
Sainristil has the type of tools Gattis wants to emphasize, so really it turned out to be a perfect match. Players like Sainristil will likely get some of the catches that previously went to big tight ends in Harbaugh's offense, and that's a positive.
Giles Jackson fits that bill, coming to campus as one of the fastest players in the freshman class.
Jackson was recruited as an all-purpose back because he can be used in a variety of ways, whether it's as a slot receiver or out of the backfield. His calling cards are speed and quickness, which Michigan was lacking on offense a year ago.
A highly recruited four-star from California, Jackson figures to have a role in the offense right away. He ran a verified 4.43-second 40-yard dash last July and became an even better fit for Michigan when Gattis was hired in the winter.
The third freshman, Cornelius Johnson, was actually the highest ranked recruit -- the No. 26 wide receiver with offers from Alabama, Notre Dame, Penn State and others.
If Johnson doesn't get as many looks as Sainristil and Jackson this season, it's based more on the team's roster makeup than it is a sign of his development.
Johnson is a bigger receiver at 6-foot-3 with reliable hands and the ability to win a jump ball. He's more like Peoples-Jones, Collins and Black than he is Bell, Sainristil and Jackson, so it could be tougher for him to get on the field as regularly.
Johnson certainly isn't slow. In fact, he has above average speed for a receiver of his size. Whether it's this season or after Peoples-Jones and Collins move on to the NFL, Johnson will be a weapon for Harbaugh.
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