Collins, Bell expected to ring up difference for what Michigan lacks in receiving depth
The numbers are not what he’d prefer, but Michigan offensive coordinator Josh Gattis, said the Wolverines will be just fine at receiver with seven scholarship players.
Gattis, who coaches the position, believes senior Nico Collins is “one of the best receivers in all of college football," and will lead the group along with junior Ronnie Bell, the team’s leading receiver last season. Also returning are three underclassmen — Mike Sainristil, Giles Jackson and Cornelius Johnson — who got valuable playing time last year, and then there's the addition of freshmen A.J. Henning, the top-rated player in Illinois, and Roman Wilson, the No. 3 player in Hawaii.
In Gattis’ first season last year as Michigan offensive coordinator, in which he installed his pro-spread, the Wolverines ranked 50th nationally in passing offense, averaging 250.8 yards. While Collins opted to return for his final year of eligibility, Donovan Peoples-Jones, who accounted for 438 yards and six touchdowns, did not.
“Obviously, we don't have a ton of depth at receiver,” Gattis said last week in a video conference with reporters. “We’ll start this year off with seven scholarship wideouts, which is very low, under the number of receivers that we want to (have), but we'll make it work.
“We got the talent there. We've got all the different pieces. And most importantly, we got the room. Those guys are great with each other, being led right now by Ronnie Bell and Nico Collins. I couldn't be more excited about that receiver room right now that I am.”
Bell caught 48 passes for 759 yards and a touchdown last year, but Collins, at 6-foot-4, 222-pounds, has NFL size and is bound for a big season. In 12 games last season he had 37 catches for 479 yards and seven touchdowns. He led the team averaging 19.7 yards per catch and in yards per game with 60.75 yards.
Having Collins return was a boost for the offense, and Gattis said he had considerable input as Collins was mulling his decision. They met several times toward the end of the season.
“I love the fact that Nico said, ‘Coach, I want to stay and develop,’” Gattis said. “But the challenge that Nico had was he was another guy that missed all offseason last year. So when Nico started off the season, he had just got cleared two weeks before the season started. He missed all offseason with some surgery and he's a tough kid because he played the previous year kind of beat up a little bit. But he had missed that huge significant chunk of developmental time that guys make from January to August.
“When he started off the season, he was just running off everything that he had done the year before. He hadn't had a chance to get his body the way he wanted, hadn’t had a chance to develop his skill set. And that was something that he felt that he wanted to work on. And now let me say that his body of work even with last year, was still very, very impressive.”
Collins said before Michigan played in the Citrus Bowl, he has never needed the spotlight or headlines. He just wants to play.
“As a kid, I kind of always liked being the low-key guy,” Collins said at the time. “I never liked the hype. I never liked my name everywhere, I just always kind of liked to prove people wrong. That's always been my mindset growing up and it still is. I just want to show people what I can do and what I'm capable of doing.”
Because of his size, Collins can be a mismatch problem for defensive backs. Michigan tight end Nick Eubanks, who also chose to return for his final season, said last year that people should not confuse Collins’ low-key nature off the field with who he is when he’s playing.
“Most people don’t see it, but he’s a big, mean dude in terms of getting what he wants and getting what he needs,” Eubanks said last season.
Gattis said Collins will show people just how good he is this season. Earlier this year during winter testing, Collins was timed in the 40-yard dash in the 4.4-4.5 range.
“Nico Collins, I firmly believe, is one of the best receivers in all of college football,” Gattis said. “He's excited just having a healthy offseason because that can go so far for you. And he also battled some nagging little injuries during the season last year, he missed some time the Middle Tennessee State game and then he missed the Illinois game.
“Now he feels like his body is finally healthy, and he's able to work on his craft and it's gonna pay off huge for him. I couldn't be more excited about who he is as a player, as a young man and as a leader. Big time future, Nico Collins.”
Michigan also has added quickness with the additions of the 5-foot-10, 183-pound Henning, the Gatorade Player of the Year in Illinois, and Wilson, who is six foot, 175 pounds. Gattis made clear they will play, just as the three freshmen did last year — Sainristil had 145 yards on eight catches, Jackson had 142 on nine, Johnson had 61 on four receptions and each had a touchdown.
“Those guys bring some speed,” Gattis said of the two freshmen. “They bring a skill set that's different. Roman’s a guy I’m so excited about his athleticism. Had he been playing in the States, I firmly believe he would be one of the most talked-about players in the country, same with A.J. Henning who is one of the most talked-about players in the country. Roman (is a) phenomenal player, just big-time athlete, big-time speed. We're excited. We're gonna throw those guys in the mix.”