Bob Wojnowski, Angelique S. Chengelis and Matt Charboneau preview Week 2 games: Michigan vs. Western Michigan and Michigan State vs. Arizona State. The Detroit News
Ann Arbor — A sense of humor is always difficult to muster after a loss, but Michigan receivers coach Jim McElwain couldn’t help but crack a joke.
It was just too easy.
Then again, his receivers, minus injured Tarik Black, graded out well in the season-opening loss at Notre Dame, didn’t have any drops and made a couple substantial plays. Sophomore Nico Collins, who was thrust into a larger role after Black’s injury a week before the start of the season, gave the Wolverines a much-needed boost early in the second half.
McElwain was asked since his arrival as receivers coach, how Collins has grown.
He knew what was being asked, but ball teed, McElwain swung and made solid contact.
“He was tall to begin with,” McElwain said this week, drawing laughs. “Just served it up.”
The reality is, Collins is a big target, 6-foot-4, 218 pounds, who understands his plate got bigger, much bigger with Black’s absence.
“His understanding of what why and how has been pretty darn good,” McElwain said, as he shook of his joke and followed through. “His assignment grade was really good in this game which tells me he did a good job of preparation. He has to continue that. He’s obviously getting a lot of reps.”
UM receivers coach Jim McElwain discusses Nico Collins' growth Angelique S. Chengelis, The Detroit News
More will be asked of Collins heading into Saturday’s home opener against Western Michigan and beyond, but offered a preview of his big-play ability on the first drive of the second half at Notre Dame when he caught a 52-yard pass from Shea Patterson.
“I loved the big play,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said Monday when asked what he liked about Collins’ play in the opener. “Thought he did a great job of running his route, using speed. Great job tracking the ball, and he made a fantastic catch. He blocked well and consistently ran good routes the whole game.”
Collins said he knew this spring he would become a bigger contributor in the offense, even with Black healthy, along with Donovan Peoples-Jones and Grant Perry and the younger receivers, including Oliver Martin and Ronnie Bell.
“I was ready,” Collins said. “Last year, I wasn’t really ready. First year, playbook. Just having that one year under my belt, I learned a lot from my freshman year.”
He said he and Black shared a vision of taking the field together this season — Harbaugh hasn’t ruled out the possibility of Black’s return this season — and what they would do and how they would celebrate.
Obviously, that plan has been sidelined for a bit.
“When he went down, it was like, ‘All right, it’s time,’” Collins said. “Our receivers came together and said, ‘Let’s do it for Tarik.’”
McElwain, who joined Harbaugh’s staff from Florida where he had been head coach, got his first hands-on experience with the receivers in the spring. Collins eased into working with this new position coach.
“I thought (he was) tentative early when we got here in the spring and as his confidence grew in the what and then the how he just seemed to play faster and faster,” McElwain said. “He’s a fun guy to be around.”
“(He’s) just putting it all together. It goes back to the teaching model of trying to figure out how each guy learns and put your plan together on how to reach each guy. Everybody is different. Guess it goes back to that. It’s important to him so he goes at it 100 percent.”
Black’s loss was disruptive. He was Michigan’s leading receiver as a freshman last season when he was lost for the season with a broken foot not even a third of the way through the schedule. And then he suffered a break in his right foot two days before game week.
That made McElwain have to shuffle things a bit.
“Obviously there was more on Nico’s plate based on that position,” he said. “It also makes some guys have to play multiple spots a little more. Oliver is one of those guys who has become a guy who can play all three spots. Grant was not only playing slot but in the two-wideout stuff he was playing on the outside. It puts a little more on guys’ plates and yet I thought they handled it well from the standpoint from what they were supposed to do.”
Peoples-Jones had to handle a bit more than he needed in the Notre Dame game and McElwain said he blames himself for putting too much pressure on the sophomore.
“I think he played too many plays. That’s on me,” McElwain said, before offering further explanation. “As far as being able to play fast every single down. There were some times, not that he was loafing, but quite honestly, he was gassed. We’ve got to do a better job of the pitch count.”
Harbaugh this week didn’t rule out moving cornerback/kick returner Ambry Thomas, who had a 99-yard kickoff return last week, to offense. He played receiver in high school and last year said he’d like to add offense to his workload.
“Everywhere we’ve been, if there’s a guy with a skillset that can help you it doesn’t matter what position they are,” McElwain said. “(Harbaugh has) done it before where they put six or seven O linemen in there …. It’s definitely something that can happen with anybody. Precedence has been set. They did it with a pretty decent guy by the name of, was it (Jabrill) Peppers, who did some things.”
McElwain offered a “we’ll see” and was then asked if Thomas has worked at receiver this week.
“Let’s go pin that on the Western board,” McElwain said, turning comedian again.
He was pleased overall with how the receivers handled their assignments in the Notre Dame game but knows there’s plenty of room for Collins and all of them to improve.
“Where can’t they improve?” McElwain said. “You can always improve on something. Technically played pretty darn good from a grade standpoint. There were a couple things they showed we have to adjust to. Overall, I thought they played pretty decent. I thought we had good separation throughout the game. It’s something you work on every single day. You guys have seen the importance of it. You can’t catch it if you’re not open.
“There’s always a lot of things we can work on. I thought they caught the ball well. We didn’t have any drops. One of the things we’ve got to do a better job of is playing fast throughout the game. I thought there were some plays we looked slow and yet there were some times we looked pretty fast. The consistency from there is where I think we need to get a little bit better.”