August 13, 2013 at 1:10 am

John Niyo

Michigan receiver Jeremy Gallon ready to make a big leap

Michigan receiver Jeremy Gallon had 49 catches for 829 yards last season and is looking for more. (John T. Greilick/Detroit News)

Ann Arbor — Everyone asks Jeremy Gallon about the No. 1 or the No. 21, referring to the jerseys reserved for players deemed worthy of honoring Michigan football legends, as it were.

Gallon’s coaches talk openly about the No. 1,000, referring to the season yardage total that’s still a benchmark for elite receivers — even in today’s pass-happy, spread-formation era of college football — and also a goal for the fifth-year senior.

But ask his close friend and quarterback, Devin Gardner, about Michigan’s leading returning receiver and he’ll talk first about the No. 10, referring to what he says is Gallon’s hidden value.

“Whatever team he’s on, that team is gonna be 10 percent happier,” Gardner said. “At least.”

At last, it seems, Gallon finally is getting his due. He’s being hailed for both his leadership and his laughter-inducing antics off the field. And as Michigan gears up for its 2013 season opener in a couple of weeks — with the offense prepared to fully embrace life after Denard Robinson — it’s clear there are big expectations for the half-pint Gallon.

The 5-foot-8 playmaker is one of only four returning wideouts who caught passes for the Wolverines last year, and Gallon’s the only one in that group that caught more than 20 balls. The fact that he did all that in relatively short order — averaging better than 100 yards per game in Michigan’s final five, including the Outback Bowl — only adds to the intrigue.

“Our expectations of him are to be an All-Big Ten receiver and be a great player for us,” U-M receivers coach Jeff Hecklinski said. “And to make big plays when big plays need to be made.”

Routine ones, too, of course. And with Michigan returning to a pro-style offense now with Gardner as the starting quarterback — as he was for those final five games last season with Robinson injured — Gallon’s hoping to become Michigan’s first 1,000-yard receiver since 2007.

Hecklinski calls that a “realistic benchmark” for Gallon, who finished with 49 catches for 829 yards as a junior. And maybe a bellwether of sorts, too, considering Michigan had one in all but one season prior to the arrival of Rich Rodriguez and his spread-option attack.

“If Jeremy reaches that plateau, then we’re moving the ball and doing good things offensively,” Hecklinski said. “If he doesn’t reach that plateau, then we’re probably struggling.”

He’ll have help, certainly, with sure-handed senior Drew Dileo also back, and breakout potential from sophomores Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson, as well as tight end Devin Funchess. But the biggest difference is in the play-calling, as coordinator Al Borges returns to his comfort zone in a pro-style offense with power running and play-action passing and a more capable downfield trigger man in Gardner.

One funny guy

For Gallon, there’s an added bonus there: He and Gardner are extremely tight. “Closer than Phineas and Ferb,” as Gallon puts it. Gardner calls his receiver “one of the funniest guys I’ve ever met,” and at Sunday’s media day he got little argument from his teammates.

“It’s hard to explain, but all the jokes, the little comments, the singing, the dancing,” said Dileo, who sits next to Gallon in meetings and struggles to keep a straight face, “I mean, the last couple weeks he’s been driving us crazy singing the ‘Lion King.’ ”

And singing it well, apparently, belting out the “Circle of Life” to help break the monotony of fall camp. Dileo says he went with his girlfriend to see the musical at the Detroit Opera House earlier this year, and “Jeremy almost sounded better than the people in the show.”

That sounds about right to Gardner, though he prefers to hear Gallon singing “The Victors” after a win, the way they did his first three games as a fill-in starter last November.

“Without a doubt, they’re like big brother and little brother,” agreed Dileo, though it’s not entirely clear which is which. “They feed off of each other.”

Initially, it was out of necessity, with Gardner practically begging for quarterback reps as a freshman and sophomore and Gallon, who played sparingly in 2010, always first in line for extra work.

“I’ve been throwing with Jeremy since I was a freshman, so that plays a big part in it,” Gardner said. “I can’t imagine how many balls I’ve thrown to him over the years. So no matter what he’s doing on the field, I know where he’s gonna be.”

And, he adds with a smile, “I know what he can do.”

So do the rest of us after last season, when Gallon emerged as, at least by one advanced metric (from the stat gurus at FootballOutsiders.com), the Big Ten’s most productive receiver. Gardner insists you don’t need statistics to tell you that, though: Just watch the plays the rock-solid, 185-pound athlete makes when his number is called.

“He’s proven time and time again his size doesn’t matter — going up over 6-foot-2 corners, guys that are supposed to be really good,” the quarterback said. “He has demonstrated he’s a big-time receiver.”

Wondering over

Gallon wasn’t exactly a big-time recruit coming out of high school. He was a single-wing quarterback from Apopka, Fla., who seemed like a good fit as a slot receiver in Rodriguez’s offense. Problem was, Rodriguez wasn’t a good fit for Michigan — or so he was told. And the coaching change that ensued left Gallon, who thought he’d left trouble behind back in Florida, wondering which way to turn after two years and four career receptions in Ann Arbor.

“Jeremy was pretty beat up (emotionally),” Hecklinski said. “I think he was a kid that was kind of searching, ‘Is this really what I want to do? Where’s my life going?’ ”

Gallon credits his parents and the U-M coaches for helping him find those answers, particularly some heart-to-heart talks with Hecklinski, a guy he happily refers to now as “my buddy.”

“He’s the one that gave me a chance, him and Coach Borges,” Gallon said. “They stuck their necks out and they gave me a chance to show what I have. … They gave everyone a chance to compete and earn their spot. That’s what I did.”

And now that he has? Well, everyone seems 10 percent happier. At least.

“This is why we coach,” Hecklinski said. “I mean, you guys want to know why we coach? We coach for kids like Jeremy Gallon.”

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