Devin Funchess has seven catches for 95 yards and three touchdowns Saturday. (Elizabeth Conley / Detroit News)
Ann Arbor — It was just one game for the new guy wearing the coveted No. 1 jersey at Michigan, but seven catches and three touchdowns later, it was difficult not to take notice.
Devin Funchess is a 6-foot-5, 230-pound junior who used to wear No. 87. That was in his previous incarnation as a tight end.
But in his full-time move to receiver, Funchess, who recently requested the No. 1 jersey and returned it to the field for the Wolverines for the first time since 2004 on Saturday in the opener, is preparing to make the type of impact expected of those who wear that number.
Against Appalachian State last weekend, Funchess finished with seven catches for 95 yards and scored the Wolverines’ first three touchdowns — all in the first half — in a rout of the Mountaineers. He is tied for first in the NCAA in touchdown receptions.
As Michigan prepares to play at Notre Dame on Saturday, quarterback Devin Gardner on Monday heaped praise on Funchess when asked just how good he can be.
“He could probably be the best receiver to ever play here,” Gardner said, matter-of-factly.
It was then pointed out to that was a pretty big statement.
“Yeah, it is,” he said, smiling.
The competition for that kind of title is fairly deep.
Braylon Edwards is Michigan’s all-time leading receiver with 3,541 yards and Anthony Carter is second with 3,076 yards. The Wolverines’ have had a receiver win the Heisman Trophy, Desmond Howard, who also has the career record for touchdown receptions with 19, and then there were receivers like Mario Manningham, who had six consecutive 100-yard receiving games in 2007 and Jeremy Gallon whose 1,373 yards receiving last season set a single-season record.
And then there’s Derrick Alexander, Jason Avant, Mercury Hayes, Amani Toomer, David Terrell, Tai Streets, just to name a few more of the top receivers who have played at Michigan.
Funchess, named the Big Ten’s Tight End of the Year last season, now has 1,077 career receiving yards and 14 touchdowns. His 748 yards a year ago were the most by a tight end at Michigan in a single season.
What Funchess, who came to Michigan from Farmington Harrison High, is, ultimately, is a defensive coordinator’s nightmare challenge. He creates an immense mismatch problem because of his size, speed and athleticism. Last week, Gardner said Funchess and freshman defensive back Jabrill Peppers are the best athletes on the team.
“Devin (Funchess) obviously creates a lot of matchup issues for defenses,” Michigan offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier said Monday. “The way he’s prepared, the way he’s practiced, I think he’s really taking his game to the next level.
“That’s what great players do. The way they approach the game within the game every day. What are you going to challenge yourself to get better at today? I think Devin has a really high ceiling, and he’s going to continue to get better as he continues to master his craft.”
Funchess said his performance Saturday had plenty to do with the countless practice hours he spent in the offseason with Gardner. It also has a lot to do with the mismatch he provides.
Notre Dame does not have great size in its secondary. The two starting safeties are 6-foot-1, and the corners are 5-9 and 5-11.
“Looking at them, I do see the size matchup, but I think they’re going to play me different this week,” Funchess said, adding the Irish will be more than aware of his ability because of his first half against Appalachian State.
What he knows his presence also will accomplish is drawing, more than likely, a double team, thus freeing up the other receivers.
Nussmeier, in his first season at Michigan, knows having Funchess is a luxury and allows so many other options.
“We know people are going to evaluate our offense and say, ‘What can we do to eliminate Devin Funchess from the game plan?’ ” Nussmeier said. “So there’s always that chess match going on to find a way, how can we get Devin the ball and what different ways can we do that to get him isolated?”