Wojo: With Shea Patterson, Michigan's receivers must catch on quickly

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
Michigan wide receiver Tarik Black

Ann Arbor — It’s all about the quarterback, even though it really can’t be. Oh, Shea Patterson brings experience and swagger and mobility and unpredictability to Michigan’s offense. He’s expected to be a difference-maker, as long as he gets a chance to make a difference.

That means Michigan’s offensive line still needs to solidify its starting tackles, 10 days before the opener at Notre Dame. That means Jim Harbaugh’s staff shakeup has to produce more clarity and creativity. That means Karan Higdon and Chris Evans have to provide a solid one-two running punch.

But where the Wolverines really could use a burst is at wide receiver, and one key can’t be overlooked: Tarik Black is back.

To say the sophomore receiver is eager to return after fracturing his left foot in the third game last season is an understatement. I mean, just ask him.

“Man, I can’t wait,” Black said Tuesday, his grin growing wider with each sentence. “I can’t wait. I’m telling you, I can’t wait. I really can’t wait.”

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And if Michigan’s offense is going to rebound from last season’s muck, it can’t wait around for guys to get open. Black was off to a terrific start as a freshman, catching a 46-yard touchdown pass from Wilton Speight in the opener against Florida. In three games, he had 11 receptions for 149 yards. After he went down against Air Force, the offense’s deep threat virtually disappeared, with few receivers regularly getting separation.

Donovan Peoples-Jones improved as the season went on, and Grant Perry was dependable at times. But the Wolverines retreated further and further from big plays, as a trio of quarterbacks dumped the ball off behind a shaky offensive line. Tight end Sean McKeon ended up as the leading receiver with 31 catches, and the Wolverines finished with a paltry nine touchdown passes, the program’s lowest total since 1975. Wide receivers caught precisely three.

Black, Peoples-Jones and Perry are back, and Nico Collins should play a more prominent role. Many starters return and the defense should be excellent again, but there’s a reason the Wolverines are nestled only at No. 14 in the AP preseason poll.

Waiting on the big play

People still want to see if they can make the big play. Patterson has been the obvious solution since he transferred from Ole Miss, and he’s drawn raves in practice.

Uncharacteristically, but logically, Harbaugh anointed him the starter Monday, with nearly two weeks left in camp. The previous three seasons, the quarterback situation was unclear practically to the opening kickoff.

Harbaugh has expressed confidence in Patterson all along, while pushing Brandon Peters, Dylan McCaffrey and Joe Milton to continue competing. But you got the sense the players knew very quickly how it would turn out.

Shea Patterson

“Shea’s a playmaker, kind of a guy we haven’t seen before,” linebacker Noah Furbush said. “He’s really doing some amazing things at practice. You hate to see it as a defense defending him, but at the same time, you love to see it. He can do it all.”

The primary element Michigan has been missing is the primary element Patterson should provide: Improvisation. It comes with risk, and in 10 starts at Ole Miss, he had 12 interceptions, in addition to 23 touchdowns and 3,139 yards passing.

Against top teams, Michigan simply hasn’t gotten enough free-lancing from its quarterbacks when a play breaks down. Jake Rudock was very good, and actually became dangerous when he improvised. Speight, Peters and John O’Korn were more likely to stand in the pocket and wait, and with a suspect line and young receivers, they often got clobbered.

Now, one of the key routines in practice is the scramble drill, where one receiver goes deep and others come back to the ball, with Patterson on the move.

“He definitely brings some intensity to the offense,” Black said. “I think it’s just great for us, having a guy you know can make a few guys miss in the pocket and extend the play with his feet. We’re just trying to stay friendly for the quarterback, and not drift up the field on our routes.”

Patterson isn’t a traditional running quarterback, and in fact rushed for only 153 yards at Ole Miss, while sacked 28 times. Working out of the shotgun, he looks to throw first, but takes off if necessary. That puts more of an onus on the receivers, and based on experience and health alone, they should be improved.

Harbaugh also did something new, hiring an assistant solely dedicated to the receiving corps. Former Florida coach Jim McElwain is one of the staff’s key additions, along with strength and conditioning coach Ben Herbert. Former Michigan receiver Roy Roundtree also rejoined the program as a graduate assistant.

Strength coach’s impact

Players can’t stop talking about Herbert’s impact, changing the way they lift weights, eat and think. Tight end Nick Eubanks said he’s up from 225 pounds to 260. Black said he added 10 pounds and is “bigger, faster, stronger, like night and day,” and loves what McElwain has brought.

“I’d say coach Mac is one of my all-time favorite coaches already,” Black said. “He brings a positive energy, always teaching us the little stuff.”

Now Michigan’s offense has to show it can do the big stuff. At 6-3, Black has the size and speed to slip behind defenders. And it certainly helps to know who the starting quarterback is now, as opposed to the day before the first game. Perhaps that’s another concession Harbaugh had to make, responding to players’ input instead of stirring discomfort.

Comfort comes with experience, of course. And although the offense will be different under Patterson, with a faster tempo and run-pass options, it might look vaguely familiar if receivers start popping open in the end zone again.

“I’m 100 percent, I feel great,” Black said. “I definitely think I can bring something to our offense as far as a deep threat guy, but that’s not all I am, I can run routes too. It’s just good to have that set quarterback to know who’s throwing us the ball, and where he’s gonna put it.”

In theory, defenses won’t know where Patterson is going to put it. For this to work as well as Michigan hopes, the receivers have to know where to go get it.