Before its eight-game winning streak, before its offseason full of doubts, and before its tumultuous 2017, Michigan football was riding a since-forgotten high in the form of its 2017 recruiting class.
Ranked as the fifth-best class in the nation by the 247Sports Composite, it boasted two five-stars and 19 four-stars. At the top of it all, crowning Harbaugh’s jewel of a group, was the nation’s best wide receiver prospect in years — Donovan Peoples-Jones.
Trapped on an atrocious passing offense, Peoples-Jones’ freshman season faded into obscurity. He wasn’t the only one. Grant Perry led the team with a paltry 307 receiving yards, followed by a pair of tight ends in Zach Gentry and Sean McKeon. Peoples-Jones — despite being held without a catch in six contests — placed fourth with 277 yards on 22 receptions.
“I feel like, as a competitor, any time you’re not doing as well as you want or the team isn’t doing as well as you want it to, there can be tough times,” Peoples-Jones said on Monday, reflecting on his freshman season. “Just because you know you want to be the best.”
Over the offseason, he worked with new wide receivers coach Jim McElwain on his skills. Harbaugh calls him “top of the list” in his ability to get separation, catch the ball, and block.
But as a former top recruit, Peoples-Jones’ talent was there, he just needed to be able to access it again.
“Playing free,” Peoples-Jones said when asked about the biggest difference for him under McElwain. “Going out there and doing what you do and not really having to think about it too much. And, definitely from a confidence standpoint, I think he’s instilled that in all of us receivers.”
With the Wolverines on the verge of a conference title and a spot in the College Football Playoff, it’s safe to say McElwain’s approach is paying dividends.
From a personal standpoint, Peoples-Jones has emerged as junior quarterback Shea Patterson’s favorite target, leading the team in all three major categories with 30 receptions for 447 yards and seven touchdowns.
But if you listen to his teammates rave about him, it becomes clear that you don’t need stats to know Peoples-Jones’ impact on Michigan’s offense.
“I think he has a better understanding of coverages and defenses and how to get open on every play,” McKeon said. “And also, he’s just making a lot of plays for us right now. He’s attacking the football, getting separation off really any kind of coverage. So, he’s really doing a great job of making plays for us downfield.”
Let’s parse that statement.
“He has a better understanding of coverages and defenses and how to get open on every play.”
If you’ve watched the Wolverines play this year, you know Patterson’s greatest weapon is his ability to extend plays with his legs — even when he ends up throwing. And repeatedly, when he does this, it is Peoples-Jones finding pockets in the defense to check back to the ball and give his quarterback an option.
“He’s just making a lot of plays for us right now.”
This may be basic coach-speak but that doesn’t make it any less true. Leading the team in receptions and touchdowns counts as ‘making a lot of plays’ in my book.
“He’s attacking the football, getting separation off really any kind of coverage.”
When McKeon praises Peoples-Jones’ ability to attack the ball, one play immediately comes to mind — his second touchdown against SMU, when he high-pointed a fade route over his defender’s head to put Michigan up 28-7. The Wolverines haven’t run that play to Peoples-Jones since then but it’s certainly a contender for the team’s catch of the season.
Shea Patterson hits Donovan Peoples-Jones for a seven-yard score. Michigan takes a 28-7 lead over SMU with 9:07 left in the third quarter. pic.twitter.com/stcwJK4FM5
— Evan Petzold (@EvanPetzold) September 15, 2018
“He’s really doing a great job of making plays for us downfield.”
Does this one need an explanation? As long as you watched Peoples-Jones blow past his defender, break a tackle, and go 79 yards to the end zone to beat Michigan State, then any further explanation would be redundant.
It doesn’t matter whether its underneath, on a go-route, on a jump ball, or even scrambling around on a busted play — Peoples-Jones is delivering on his promised stardom.
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