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Defusing Alabama's 'explosive' receivers poses tough mission for Michigan

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — There’s plenty that stands out about Alabama’s offense, among the most productive in the country, but its group of receivers is particularly eye-catching.

As Michigan continues its preparations for the New Year’s Day Citrus Bowl clash with Alabama, the Wolverines’ defense has plenty to focus on, including redshirt sophomore quarterback Mac Jones, who replaced the injured Tua Tagovailoa, top-notch tackles in Alex Leatherwood and Jedrick Wills Jr., and running back Najee Harris.

DeVonta Smith (6) leads Alabama's high-powered receiving corps with 65 catches for 1,200 yards and 13 touchdowns.

But the three receivers  DeVonta Smith, Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs III — are considered top NFL prospects who have helped the Crimson Tide to the nation’s third most productive passing offense, averaging 343.5 yards a game. Alabama (10-2) averages 513.3 yards of offense.

“This could be the best group of receivers I’ve seen in, maybe, ever,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said recently. “Probably three first-round picks in that group.”

That is not an exaggeration. Smith is 6-foot-1, 175 pounds and leads the team in receiving with 1,200 yards and 13 touchdowns. Those marks rank 10th and sixth, respectively, in the nation. 

The 6-1, 192-pound Jeudy has 959 yards and nine touchdowns and Ruggs has 719 yards and seven touchdowns. Jaylen Waddle also has 553 yards for Alabama and six touchdowns.

“They’re extremely explosive,” Michigan linebacker Jordan Glasgow said. “They have a very talented receiving corps and a lot of other pieces that are really impressive.”

The Wolverines enter the game ranked fifth nationally in passing yards allowed (173.8 per game). But in a loss to Ohio State in the final regular-season game, the Buckeyes had 15 receptions for 313 yards and four touchdowns.

Khaleke Hudson, who plays viper in the Michigan defense, said Alabama is similar to Ohio State. He also mentioned Penn State and Indiana as having passing threats reminiscent of the Crimson Tide.

“They’ve got big-play ability guys,” Hudson said. “They’ve got a good receiving corps, a good running back in Najee Harris and they’re backup quarterback is good also. They’re an offense that works as one. They work together. If you let them get a chance, they can be very explosive.”

There was some thought that several draft-eligible Alabama players would choose to sit out the Citrus Bowl since it’s not the national playoff, which has been the norm for the Crimson Tide. Alabama has played in six national title games since 2011 and won four.

Jeudy told Alabama reporters recently he had “no second thoughts” about playing in the bowl game against Michigan.

“I already knew whatever the bowl game we played in that I would be playing,” Jeudy told AL.com despite being a legitimate first-round pick if he chooses to leave Alabama.

“I know some people probably think that we should sit out, but we really wasn’t listening to what other people had to say. We already know what we came here to do, and we’re going to finish doing.”

The Michigan players have discussed how playing well against an elite team like Alabama can only help them in the eyes of NFL scouts. Defensive end Kwity Paye recently said strength coach Ben Herbert mentioned this bowl being a “money game” in the sense that players can improve their draft stock.

Someone like senior cornerback Lavert Hill, a first-team All-Big Ten selection, can attract more attention with a strong performance against the Alabama receivers.

“There’s a lot of first-round guys on that team,” Paye said. “Lavert Hill has an opportunity to play against a couple first-round talents and our D-line has a chance to play against some first-round talent on the O-line. It’s huge for us getting an opportunity to play against that talent and show the NFL scouts what we can do.”

Citrus Bowl

MICHIGAN VS. ALABAMA

Kickoff: 1 p.m. Jan. 1 Camping World Stadium, Orlando

TV/radio: ABC/950

Records: Michigan 9-3, Alabama 10-2

Line: Alabama by 7

achengelis@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @chengelis