Ann Arbor — It’s hard to be the leading man when you don’t have many lines.
But for Donovan Peoples-Jones, Michigan’s soft-spoken sophomore receiver, it never really has been about the speaking part.
Or even the top billing, though the former Cass Tech star arrived on campus as the No. 1-rated player in the state of Michigan and the prized centerpiece of the Wolverines’ loaded 2017 recruiting class.
“Yeah, one thing I admire about him is how humble he is, every single day,” said linebacker Josh Ross, a fellow sophomore who considers Peoples-Jones a close friend. “With all the hype surrounding him coming into college — five-star (recruit), all these expectations — he’s just so humble and down-to-earth.”
And while his high-flying act is finally taking off this season, that really hasn’t changed. Peoples-Jones leads the Wolverines in receiving (30 catches for 447 yards) and is second only to running back Karan Higdon in scoring with seven touchdowns through 10 games. But if you ask him to compare what he feels now with the frustration he felt a year ago as Michigan stumbled to an 8-5 finish in his freshman season, he’ll run a stop-and-go route right past you.
“It’s always fun to play this game that I love,” Peoples-Jones said. “It’s even more fun when we’re winning. That’s all I’ve got to say about that.”
That’s all he needs to say, obviously. Last year’s gone and buried by this point, as fourth-ranked Michigan’s “revenge tour” rolls toward a climactic showdown in Columbus, where a Big Ten championship berth should be on the line Thanksgiving weekend.
And when pressed about last year’s struggles — the offense spun its wheels with three different quarterbacks and an offensive line that seemed lost, at times — Peoples-Jones prefers to look at the bright side. Sure, he finished his 2017 debut with 22 catches for 277 yards, no touchdowns and probably a few questions about where things were headed in Ann Arbor.
“And anytime you’re not doing as well as you’d like, or the team isn’t doing as well as you want it to, there can be tough times — just because you know you want to be the best,” Peoples-Jones said Monday, as he and his teammates began preparations for the Wolverines’ home finale against Indiana. “But I’ll just leave it at that.”
Clearly, there’s a different feeling now throughout the program. And for the receiving corps, which has a dedicated full-time assistant now in Jim McElwain, there’s a confidence that Peoples-Jones says goes beyond just schematic changes or weight-room growth.
“We’re playing free,” he said, describing what has changed with McElwain’s arrival, as well as the addition of former UM receiver Roy Roundtree to the staff. “It’s sense of going out there and doing what you do and not having to think about too much.”
I think it’s safe to say the addition of Shea Patterson has been a huge factor there — the arm talent, the accuracy, his playmaking ability on the run. And there’s no arguing the moving targets are easier to hit now with an established run game. But Jim Harbaugh took time to poke fun at himself Monday as he talked about the strides his receivers have made this season.
“The biggest thing is the way they catch the ball,” he said, noting he dropped two passes in pregame warmups on a windy day at Rutgers. “I pride myself on catching them all. Those two drops by me and none by the receivers, which was outstanding.”
From there, Michigan’s head coach went on to talk about his receivers’ improved route running and run blocking. And when asked specifically about Peoples-Jones’ progress, Harbaugh replied, “Boom, boom, boom. Right at the top of the list.”
That’s where Peoples-Jones has always been, frankly, posting back-to-back 1,000-yard receiving seasons at Cass Tech as a junior and senior and capping his prep career with an MVP performance in the state championship game. At high-school all-star camps — even as a 17-year-old junior — he posted raw speed and agility numbers that would’ve turned heads at the NFL scouting combine.
The same was true when he arrived on campus as an early enrollee in January 2017, part of a highly touted class that included fellow receivers Tarik Black, Nico Collins and Oliver Martin. Asked what stood out about Peoples-Jones then, Grant Perry — now a senior wideout — pointed to those freakish physical attributes, “The stuff you can’t teach.”
But he’s learning now, and it shows, despite fewer opportunities at Michigan than he might've found elsewhere, playing in an offense that didn't lean so heavily on the run or on spreading the ball around quite like this. (Peoples-Jones is averaging just over five targets per game this season.)
“I think he has a better understanding of coverages and defenses, and how to get open on every play,” junior tight end Sean McKeon said. “Obviously, he’s making a lot of plays for us right now. He’s attacking the football and getting separation off really any kind of coverage. He’s really doing a great job of making plays for us downfield.
It was his 79-yard touchdown that broke the Spartans’ back in the third quarter of that rivalry game, Peoples-Jones even striking a Paul Bunyan Trophy pose in the end zone at Spartan Stadium. It was his toe-tapping TD grab that truly ignited the rout of Penn State, a highlight that included him mimicking former PSU star Saquon Barkley’s windmill-arm celebration. (Barkley later responded to his Instagram post about it by praising the “young savage.”)
But this was his response Monday when he was prodded to talk about it.
“Enjoying playing football, enjoying playing for Michigan,” he shrugged, smiling. “I was just havin’ fun, making the most out of my moments.”
Still, quietly, you get the sense there's a lot more to come.