How Michigan football will replace Nico Collins' production: With speed, athleticism

Orion Sang, Detroit Free Press
·4 min read

There's a Nico Collins-sized hole in Michigan football's receivers room right now.

The star pass-catcher's departure became official Monday, when he was removed from the roster and coach Jim Harbaugh told reporters that Collins was no longer with the program.

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"Nico is not participating in football right now," Harbaugh said Monday afternoon. "I don’t have a crystal ball as to if his mind would change or not. I know he’s not currently on the team.”

Michigan wide receiver Nico Collins runs against Ohio State during the first half at the Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Saturday, Nov. 30, 2019.
Michigan wide receiver Nico Collins runs against Ohio State during the first half at the Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Saturday, Nov. 30, 2019.

Collins' absence has been anticipated for some time now, at least ever since reports emerged that he signed with high-powered NFL agent Drew Rosenhaus. But until Monday, players and coaches — and Collins himself — had yet to definitively state whether he was in or out on Michigan's 2020 season.

But with the season opener at Minnesota on Saturday, the Wolverines' receivers corps is mighty inexperienced.

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"The thing that’s going to be the challenge with any group that’s young and inexperienced is consistency," said offensive coordinator and receivers coach Josh Gattis on the "Inside Michigan Football" radio show Monday night. "Being able to consistently make those plays when your number is called is going to be the key.

"But I’m excited about the depth."

Of the six scholarship receivers on the roster, three — Giles Jackson, Mike Sainristil and Cornelius Johnson — are sophomores; two — A.J. Henning and Roman Wilson — are true freshmen.

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The most experienced receiver on the roster is junior Ronnie Bell, who has has 56 career catches (48 last season) for 903 yards and three touchdowns.

The group is also smaller than last season; Collins was listed at 6-foot-4, while former receivers Donovan Peoples-Jones and Tarik Black were listed at 6-2 and 6-3. Now, U-M's six scholarship receivers have an average height of 5-foot-11.

Michigan wide receiver Giles Jackson runs for a first down during the first half of U-M's 35-16 loss in the Citrus Bowl on Wednesday, Jan. 1, 2020, in Orlando, Florida.
Michigan wide receiver Giles Jackson runs for a first down during the first half of U-M's 35-16 loss in the Citrus Bowl on Wednesday, Jan. 1, 2020, in Orlando, Florida.

“This group is very talented," Gattis said Monday night on the radio. "We’re not as big as what I’d probably prefer us to be right now, but we’re very talented. Fast, athletic.

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"We’ve got some guys that are some dynamic type players and guys that are really crafty in their craft as far as being able to create separation and create big plays."

Michigan might not have the size to win jump balls downfield, but that hasn't been the focus of the passing game under Gattis. In his first year calling the offense at U-M, Gattis schemed for his receivers to make plays in space, specifically with bubble screens to Bell or giving the ball to Jackson on reverses.

It was an evolution in how Michigan used its receivers, one that continued with the recruitment of players like Henning and Wilson, who were both lauded for their game-breaking speed.

The six scholarship receivers scholarship receivers, whom Gattis said are all scheduled to play this season, have made a "big number of plays" throughout fall camp.

Michigan wide receiver Ronnie Bell makes a catch against Ohio State during the first half at the Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Saturday, Nov. 30, 2019.
Michigan wide receiver Ronnie Bell makes a catch against Ohio State during the first half at the Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Saturday, Nov. 30, 2019.

The key question: Whether the success during practices can translate to Saturdays.

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"We’ve just got to continue making those plays when game time comes because it’s going to be new for a lot of those guys," Gattis said. "You only have one guy returning that has played significant time in games and a lot of guys played impact time but didn’t play significant time.

"They were more touch guys like Giles Jackson, Mike Sainristil and Cornelius Johnson. But those guys have stepped up in tremendous ways, really excited about the true freshmen that we have as well.”

When Collins arrived in 2017, he was part of a receivers class that was touted as perhaps the best in program history, joining Peoples-Jones, Black and Oliver Martin. All four players are gone now, with unanticipated or premature conclusions to their time in Ann Arbor.

Michigan must now turn the page. And the Wolverines are plenty happy with who they've got left.

"A lot of good receivers," Harbaugh said. "One of the really good things about our offense has been the receiving groups. Their ability to get separation, to gain separation and increase separation and to catch and make contested catches."

Contact Orion Sang at osang@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @orion_sang. Read more on the Michigan Wolverines and sign up for our Wolverines newsletter. The Free Press has started a new digital subscription model. Here's how you can gain access to our most exclusive Michigan Wolverines content.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan football's plans to replace Nico Collins' production