3 questions surrounding Michigan’s wide receivers as spring practice nears

Ronnie Bell, Michigan football’s leading receiver in three of the last four seasons, is headed to the NFL. Andrel Anthony, who was never able to build on his breakout big game against the Spartans in 2021, is now playing for Oklahoma.

On the other side, Cornelius Johnson has elected to return to Ann Arbor for another season. Johnson was Michigan’s leading receiver in the 2021 season when Ronnie Bell was out for injury, and he led Michigan in touchdowns in 2022.

There will be no quarterback competition in the 2023 offseason and JJ McCarthy will have his first full offseason as the starter. He will once again have a deep and talented room of wide receivers to work with. Another sky is the limit season on paper for the Michigan wide receivers.

1. Who replaces Ronnie Bell?

What Ronnie Bell does well is get open, especially adjusting for McCarthy when he is out of the pocket. If there is going to be a receiver with a significant target advantage, they are going to have to find the holes in the defense when JJ is on the run.

The answer to who replaces Ronnie is difficult. Johnson led the team in receiving with Bell out in 2021, but he wasn’t converting a large share of targets. His contested catch rate was 35.3% in 2021 and 42.9% in 2022, so his bigger frame seems to give him an advantage there.

Roman Wilson seems like the obvious choice. More similar in size and style and Wilson has the ability to line up outside or in the slot. Wilson simply hasn’t had the targets for us to make the data-based argument that he can be a Bell-like WR1. He did catch 67.6% of his targets last season, but he struggled at times to consistently create separation. I think the answer could be a combination of Johnson and Wilson, but I also think the answer may lie in the next question.

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2. Who is the primary slot receiver?

Roman Wilson who had been the Z receiver with Bell out in 2021, played almost exclusively in the slot in 2022. 90% of his snaps were in the slot and the majority of his outside reps came later in the season.

Roman Wilson moving to Z makes a lot of sense. Michigan rotates players a lot, and receivers line up in multiple spots on the field but there tends to be a clear WR1 and WR2 with Michigan not running a lot of 11 personnel compared to other sets. So with Wilson back outside, that makes him and Johnson the top 2.

Michigan has options for a primary slot receiver if Wilson indeed moves to the Z. The first name that jumps out is AJ Henning. Hard to believe Henning is entering his senior season in Ann Arbor already. Henning was a 4-star Rivals Top 100 recruit in the 2020 class. Henning’s usage at Michigan has been somewhat bizarre. In a limited role as a sophomore, Henning caught 10 passes for 79 yards. He also had 9 rushes for 162 yards, 18 yards per carry, and 2 touchdowns. Henning was also electric as a return man, including a kick return touchdown.

The potential game-changer here is Tyler Morris. Morris was part of Michigan’s “freak show” wide receiver class in 2022. Late in the 2022 season, he saw 5 targets, converting 3 for receptions. 2 of the catches went for first down, including a difficult contested target against Rutgers. Morris lined up in the slot on 89.5% of his snaps, second only to Roman Wilson. Morris is a track star and can impact the game from the slot in many of the same ways Wilson and Henning have with end around and screens.

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3. Who is WR3?

We can learn a lot about this question from the first two. Roman Wilson’s role is really the most important question. If he moves outside then it is fair to think that the WR3 will likely be Henning or Morris in the slot. If Wilson stays in the slot, the name with breakout potential is the star of last season’s spring practice, Darrius Clemons.

Clemons is 6’3″ 214 lbs and has posted sub 4.4 40-yard dash times. He is incredibly smooth for a bigger receiver and adjusts well on elevated passes. He has flashed plus hand skills and looks like the kind of receiver that can win contested targets. I’d argue no Michigan receiver currently has a higher ceiling than Clemons. You have to block in the run game to play receiver for the Wolverines, and assuming Clemons can prove he can do that consistently he will be part of Michigan’s ” top 5″ receivers.

It is also worth considering that WR3 may not be a wide receiver at all. Donovan Edwards is arguably Michigan’s best receiver and while injuries limited his exposure in the passing game, with Blake Corum returning Edwards may make his biggest impact catching the ball. I would expect Edwards to see more slot snaps this season. The same can be said for tight end Colston Loveland. Loveland is a former receiver who grew into a tight end. 31.8% of his snaps came from the slot in 2022. With his ability to stretch the field and win in the seam, he will be a weapon inside as well.

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