'It's a shame': Michigan receiver Ronnie Bell out for season with knee injury
Ann Arbor — Ronnie Bell, a captain and Michigan’s top receiver the last two years, will miss the rest of the season because an injury to his right knee suffered in the opener last Saturday.
Now, one week into the season, Michigan must find a way to replace his on-field leadership and sure hands as a receiver and punt returner.
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh, who shared the news Monday at his weekly news conference, said Bell was named the team’s player of the game for his performance in the 47-14 victory over Western Michigan at Michigan Stadium.
“It’s a shame,” Harbaugh said. “Ronnie was having a phenomenal game, along with Blake (Corum) making the big plays, carrying our offense early in the game.
“He was having a great game.”
Harbaugh said surgery has not yet been set.
“Ronnie’s drive is so high,” Harbaugh said. “It will be a tough, grueling rehab as all injuries are. If anybody can do it, Ronnie will.”
Bell was injured after returning a punt 31 yards with just less than eight minutes left in the first half. He was helped from the field, and after speaking with the medical staff and Harbaugh on the sideline, he limped to a cart and was taken from the field to the locker room.
Bell’s only catch in the game was a 76-yard touchdown pass from Cade McNamara with 9:18 left in the first half to take give Michigan a 17-7 lead. During Michigan’s previous drive, Bell made an exceptional one-handed catch for a 34-yard gain but was called for pass interference.
“Talking to Ronnie, he’s going to continue to lead from the sideline and be a big part of our team,” Harbaugh said. “From my own personal experience having a season-ending injury, the best way not to be left out is to help out. Leading from the sideline, being a captain, also what he can contribute intellectually, because he’s a smart guy. Ronnie definitely is driven, cares about the team and will continue to be a big part of it, I’m sure.”
Sophomore receiver A.J. Henning, who scored on a 74-yard end-around in the opener, said the receivers are rallying to support Bell and to find ways to replace him.
“You see how hard he works, and you see the effort he puts in every day and he’s our captain,” Henning said. “He’s like the heart and soul of the wide receiver room. So just seeing him go down, it’s tough. We’re all going to do our job, just stepping up and filling that role, all the receivers and everybody on the offense, because everybody wants to do it for him. That’s the kind of guy he is. He’s a captain on this team. He’s really well-respected on this team. You just hate to see that for him.”
Michigan must find ways to replace Bell not only as a receiver but as a returner. Former Michigan receiver Giles Jackson, who transferred to Washington — the Wolverines’ opponent on Saturday — handled the bulk of punt and kickoff returns last year, and Bell had not returned punts since the 2019 season when former receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones was the primary returner.
Bell always has been a part of the punt-return options for Michigan, practicing there the last few seasons. Harbaugh on Monday defended his use of such a valuable offensive player as a returner.
“You’ve got great players that return punts, and Ronnie’s a great player, much like guys we’ve had in the past — Jabrill Peppers, Giles (Jackson), go back to Steve Breaston to Desmond Howard to Charles Woodson,” Harbaugh said. “Those great players impact the game from that position.”
Caden Kolesar was the next punt returner in the game after Bell’s injury. Kolesar was the team’s special team’s player of the game and had the most plays with 23, Harbaugh said. Now, the coaches must weigh whether Kolesar is more valuable in other aspects of the return game or as a returner.
“He’s also our best rusher on punts, he’s also our best holdup guy,” Harbaugh said. “Ultimately, A.J. Henning, if he can get really comfortable back there catching the ball, it’s an ideal position for him, as well as receiver. Right now, Caden is the most sure-handed guy, next best from Ronnie. The problem is, if he returns the punts, he’s not rushing and blocking and holding up. So many other places he can play on the punt return. We’ll figure that out as we go.”
Henning, who considers himself the fastest receiver on the team, played coy regarding his possible participation as a punt returner.
“We’ll see this week what the plan is for punt return,” he said. “I’m ready in all phases to help the team.”
Bell’s value as a receiver can’t be undervalued. He has been clutch for the Wolverines the last few seasons.
“It’s going to be very difficult to replace Ronnie Bell,” Harbaugh said. “Really tough, seasoned, experienced, tremendous blocker. So competitive. Such a gamer.”
There were only 17 passes attempted against Western Michigan. McNamara was 9-of-11, while freshman J.J. McCarthy was 4-of-6 including a 69-yard pass across the field to Daylen Baldwin. Receivers Cornelius Johnson, Mike Sainristil, Baldwin and Henning all caught passes, and they will be expected to carry the receivers group, along with Roman Wilson and freshman Andrel Anthony.
“Everybody has to step up,” Henning said. “It’s going to be everybody stepping up and everybody doing their part to pick it up.”
Henning said the receivers will try to emulate Bell as much as possible.
“He’s fearless in everything he does,” Henning said. “Whenever he takes the field he wants to dominate in all phases of the game whether it’s catching the ball, run blocking on the perimeter. It’s everything. That’s something that everybody respects so much about him because he’s a fearless competitor. “