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November 7, 2012

Wide receivers come up big in Minneapolis

After the Wolverines' 41-14 loss to No. 1 Alabama in the season opener, there were plenty of questions surrounding this team. A big preseason one, however, seemed to have been answered: could Michigan get production out of its wide receiving corps?

In that game against, what is considered by virtually every measurement available, the best defense in the country, the wide receivers caught a total of eight passes for 183 yards and a touchdown. Redshirt junior wide receiver Jeremy Gallon slipped behind the Crimson Tide and hauled in a 71-yard catch (which remains the only play long than 50 yards Alabama has surrendered all year).

But since then, however, the production from the wide receivers has been at a varying level of disappointment and frustration. To be sure, they have "done the little things," like commit to downfield blocking - but the catches dwindled.

Between the Air Force and Nebraska games, the wide receivers combined to tally more than 138 yards just once, notching 205 yards against Massachusetts.

Production bottomed out in Lincoln. With backup quarterback Russell Bellomy taking snaps for injured quarterback Denard Robinson, the wide receivers caught just six total passes for 70 yards - and left several plays on the field.

Robinson, still nursing his elbow a week later, wasn't good to go at Minnesota, either. First-time starter Devin Gardner left his spot in the wide receiving corps to play quarterback - and Michigan coach Brady Hoke issued a challenge for the pass catchers to step up.

"When Russ was in there, we had guys dropping balls, and we got in trouble for that," fifth-year senior Roy Roundtree said. "Coach really got on us and said this last game, we have to make sure we get in rhythm for Devin, and I felt like we do a good job of making plays for him."

Against the Golden Gophers, the wide receivers tied a season high with 11 combined catches and set highs in yards in a game (227) and touchdowns (two).

And they were on the same page as a quarterback who, still easing back into the position after more than a year since his last in-game snap, improvised a little.

Michigan got on the board early in the second quarter when Gardner rolled right, spun back across the field and heaved the ball 45 yards downfield, finding junior wide receiver Drew Dileo alone in the end zone.

It takes a lot of synchronicity, nonverbal communication and understanding between quarterbacks and wide receivers to pull off a backyard play like that - especially with a quarterback who is learning on the fly.

"It's a pattern," said Roundtree, describing his responsibilities when the play breaks down. "If you're deep, you come back short, and if you're short, you go deep. Drew was short and went deep. Defenders probably lost him a little bit, and he was behind them."

As soon as Gardner unleashed the bomb, Roundtree started celebrating.

"I just ran over there, because I knew it was a touchdown," he said. "That was [Dileo's] first touchdown. He's been talking about it all year. We got him one."

Roundtree admitted that the scramble drill can be difficult to get a hold on, as a wide receiver. But Gardner and his targets were on the same page against the Golden Gophers.

"You hope that they look up the field and see if someone is open," Roundtree said. "Once they duck their head, you know they're going to run, so you have to go find a block. With the quarterbacks we have, you know you have to stay on the move. Until they pass the line of scrimmage, that's when you know for sure.

"Denard has some scramble drill, but when he sees open field, he's running. Devin, when he sees open field, he's going to look up first and then take off. It's something we always practice, and we have to stay open and stay moving around."

Dileo wasn't the only receiver to make a big catch, either. Gallon and Roundtree each had 47-yard snags in the game.

Roundtree's set up a fourth-quarter Gardner two-yard touchdown run.

"The ball was thrown in the air, and then I saw the defender coming, so I was like, 'I have to try to get in front of him,'" he said. "I tried to hold onto the ball, and I had it up against my helmet at the time. I held on. They said I had possession. They went to instant replay again, and I thought, "Oh no, here we go.' But it worked out."

Roundtree was referencing his overturned catch against Nebraska the week before. He laid out for what appeared to be a 55-yard catch in the first quarter - but the officials in the booth ruled it an incompletion.

Does he worry about replay every time he makes a big catch now?

"I need to just catch it clean and score," he said, smiling.


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