Reticent Donovan Peoples-Jones lets big plays speak for him

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News
Donovan Peoples-Jones

Ann Arbor — Michigan receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones is as reserved as they come, opening up publicly in interviews a bit here and there but always careful not to reveal too much.

It’s not by design, although he shared this summer that while he will happily engage in chit-chat, when the recorders come out, he clams up.

His teammates, of course, see a different version but they have also described him as a quiet guy who buries himself in his reading when on flights and bus trips. Peoples-Jones, who came out of Cass Tech as the nation’s No. 1 top-rated receiver, has been described by teammates on a number occasions as a “freak athlete.”

“You’ve got to kind of crack him open,” senior receiver Grant Perry said earlier this season about Peoples-Jones. “Last year he was a quieter guy. But the camaraderie is better, and he’s spread his wings a lot. Good to see that.”

Peoples-Jones didn’t blossom out of the box last year as did Tarik Black during their freshman years, but with Black sidelined most of the season with a broken foot after a hot start to the season, he started to spread those wings and became more seasoned week after week.

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He was voted the team’s Rookie of the Year for his performance last fall.

Now, as sixth-ranked Michigan prepares for No. 24 Michigan State, Peoples-Jones has become a playmaking threat as a receiver and punt returner.

He has 21 catches for 247 yards and five touchdowns, including three touchdowns in four catches against SMU. He also had a 60-yard punt return for a touchdown against Nebraska.

“Just me being comfortable,” Peoples-Jones said this week when asked about taking his game to the next step. “Getting older, experienced.”

Last season as Peoples-Jones was getting acclimated to the college game, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said the coaches were still working on the young receiver to break some of his high school habits. Peoples-Jones has benefited, as have all the receivers, with the addition of a designated receivers coach, Jim McElwain, and grad assistant and former Michigan receiver Roy Roundtree.

“I don’t feel like I’ve broken all of them yet,” Peoples-Jones said. “Still getting better. Working on all I can work on.”

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Tight end Zach Gentry, who leads the Wolverines in receiving with 311 yards on 21 catches, said earlier this season that Peoples-Jones had definitely improved his readiness for the season while increasing his knowledge of the game to go along with the experience he gained last fall.

“He’s always been a super- athletic guy, kind of a freak athlete,” Gentry said. “Credit to him taking the next step learning the playbook inside and out and perfecting his craft. He looks comfortable.”

He didn’t always look comfortable last season fielding punts, occasionally making head-scratching decisions. But he has, for the most part, looked more confident in his decision making. He has 17 returns for 160 yards, including the 60-yard touchdown return.

“Decisions,” safeties coach and special teams coordinator Chris Partridge said Wednesday when asked where Peoples-Jones has improved as a returner. “Making the right decisions when he’s not catching the ball, getting the other guys away from it. Improved his catching ability, which is good. He wasn’t as natural as you’d like back there, and he’s become that. He’s taken command of the punt return unit.”

Some told Partridge having a freshman back there wasn’t advisable. Clearly, he thought otherwise.

“Before last year, an older special teams coach told me, ‘Hey, I would never start a true freshman as a punt returner,’” Partridge said. “We went with it and he’s grown in that position, and he’s pretty dynamic now. He’s dangerous back there. I know he scares the opponents, so it’s a good weapon to have and he’s continuing to work on it daily, which is great.”

Peoples-Jones grew up in the area and understands the Michigan-Michigan State rivalry.

“The energy will be up,” he said. “We have all the motivation we need.

“I remember losing to them last year. The vibe that brought our team, it just wasn’t good. I think that’s all the motivation we need for this year. We never want to lose to Michigan State. That’s all the motivation we need for this year.”

The players across the board have said they have a renewed level of confidence and much of that stems from improved play from the offense. Shea Patterson transferred from Ole Miss and has been a steadying force and gradually has shown off his playmaking ability. The offensive line has shown improvement since the season-opening loss to Notre Dame, while the skill players, including running back Karan Higdon, receiver Nico Collins, Gentry and Peoples-Jones have improved.

“I just think we’re coming together as a team, as a brotherhood,” Peoples-Jones said. “Last year, we were young. We’re still young this year, but we’re all older and we’re learning. We’re learning we need that brotherhood to go in and fight as a team. That’s just what has been pulling us together.”

Twitter @chengelis