October 12, 2013

Funchess answers the challenge

The question rankled Michigan wide receivers coach Jeff Hecklinski, but it didn't abate among the prognosticators looking at Michigan's offense in the preseason. Where are the playmakers?

It was, of course, more than an honest question. It was a charge, a dismissal, one that consigned the Wolverines to a status behind those who would challenge for a Legends Division championship.

Hecklinski knew he had something cooking, though, and was anxious to unleash it. In 5-8 fifth-year senior Jeremy Gallon, he saw a player who could be a first-team All-Big Ten performer. In 6-2 sophomore Amara Darboh, he featured a taller receiver set to break out for a big season.

In 6-3 Jehu Chesson, Hecklinski witnessed more developing potential, and in 5-10 senior Drew Dileo, a veteran with a knack for finding the open spots in defensive backfields at clutch moments.

Gallon left no doubt early he'd come to play, catching eight passes for a career-best 184 yards and three touchdowns in Michigan's highlight win of the non-conference season, the 41-30 race past Notre Dame. But Darboh's season-ending foot injury, endured in fall camp, left the Wolverines still seeking the immediate-impact bigger wideout who could direct some attention away from No. 21.

Chesson has shown some flashes, and he'll continue to develop. But Michigan coaches obviously knew they needed another trump card to play in the receiving department, and did so emphatically in the Big Ten opener.

Sophomore tight end Devin Funchess didn't stay locked to the line in the 42-13 push past Minnesota. He split out, getting significant use as a receiver while on his way to seven catches for 151 yards and a touchdown.

Offensive coordinator Al Borges points out the Minnesota game didn't mark the first instance of Funchess getting moved around to make use of his 6-5, 235-pound frame and considerable receiving skills. It was the first time those who'd wondered about Funchess as the consistent big wideout threat got to see their dreams in extensive action.

From the youngest fans in the Michigan Stadium stands to someone who played a role in 15 Big Ten championships, the reaction proved enthusiastic.

"I don't think he's an extra receiver," former Michigan assistant coach Jerry Hanlon observed. "I think he is the receiver. Put him out there and let him go against those defensive backs. Maybe he won't be able to out-run them, but he'll sure be able to out-jump them, and he has really tremendous hands. If you put him out there and get the ball somewhere in the area, he has an awfully good opportunity of going up and getting it.

"I've thought all along that he can develop into a good tight end. But he really needs to learn how to block. He isn't someone you ought to keep on the bench, because he's such a big-play threat. Playing him out there was a great move by that offensive staff. We hope to see some more of him out there."

There seems little doubt of that, given the early returns. Head coach Brady Hoke might have sounded a bit hyperbolic in talking about a "6-6 or 6-7" target, except that Funchess appears to play that big, given his wingspan and ability to elevate.

Add in enormous hands that can snatch footballs down efficiently in traffic, and the combination of physical features and skills become even more imposing.

That doesn't mean Gallon becomes the forgotten man. Quite the contrary, it means defensive backs can't focus most of their attention on him, opening the door for more Notre Dame-like performances. Michigan is making its way back to a pick-your-poison proposition it thought it would have all along in the receiving corps.

"When you have both kids in the football game, and you know Devin [Gardner] has favorite receivers, and he liked Gallon, well now he's got another guy by the name of Devin he likes to throw to," Hanlon said. "Now you have to decide, 'Uh-Oh, who do we cover, if we want to try to double?'

"It's pretty hard to double receivers on both sides. It gives us a big plus to have them both on the field at the same time, and both having great years so far."

Gallon leads the way with 24 catches, 367 yards, four touchdowns and a healthy 15.3 yards-per-catch average. Funchess has now caught 15 passes for 296 yards (a team-leading 19.7 average) and a pair of touchdowns.

Where are the playmakers? That's sort of like asking: "Where's the threat?" They, and it, are developing apace.

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