ATLANTA — Jim Harbaugh calls them ‘opportunity practices.’ His passing game coordinator, Pep Hamilton says they’re a chance for ‘tremendous growth.’
Whatever the wording may be, the consensus around Michigan’s locker room is that the 15-practice lead up to Bowl Week provides a critical opportunity for younger players to prove their worth.
Sophomore wide receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones recalls using the period before last year’s Outback Bowl to step into an increased role after a regular season that didn’t live up to his five-star billing. The practices paid off against South Carolina as he posted a then-career-high six receptions that he used as a building block to become the Wolverines’ top receiver this year.
“Our coaches always have a great visual going into bowl week. It’s been similar this year,” Peoples-Jones said on Thursday. “The practices are great for the younger guys, the practices are great for the older guys. Younger guys definitely get a chance to step up, kinda get a taste of how it can be next year, if things go right and things stay the same.”
Assuming a leadership role this time around, Peoples-Jones sees freshman wide receiver Ronnie Bell as the biggest beneficiary of the 15 extra practices. Ask Hamilton and you’ll get a different answer — one that highlights freshman tackle Jalen Mayfield and freshman quarterback Joe Milton.
“Jalen Mayfield has shown tremendous growth and potential in the ‘opportunity practices,’ as coach Harbaugh calls it, along with Joe Milton,” Hamilton said. “Joe Milton is gonna be a special player, he has all the talent in the world. Another guy that should be able to put us back in a position to compete at a high level whenever he gets his opportunity to play for us.”
On the other side of the ball, defensive coordinator Don Brown spits out too many names to count on one hand. Cam McGrone, Vincent Gray, Ambry Thomas, Sammy Faustin, J’Marick Woods, and Donovan Jeter are among those he singles out.
The positions may vary but the constant is that none of these players have yet seen their time to shine — with the possible exception of Thomas’ kickoff return against Notre Dame. With the grind of school and weekly games, the regular season does not provide the time for Harbaugh and his staff to focus on their stars of the future.
This period — for all the talk of focusing on the task at hand and not turning the page to 2019 — does exactly that. The results may not be fully on display until September, but they’ll start to manifest themselves on Saturday.
Just ask Peoples-Jones.
“Definitely, I would call it a moment where you can realize that this is real.”