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January 4, 2006

Report card: Grading Michigan's receivers

Michigan's 2005 season came to an end with a disappointing thud as tight end Tyler Ecker was tackled out of bounds, thus ending any hope of an Alamo Bowl victory or the avoidance of a five-loss season for the first time since 1984. In the aftermath, everyone has had an opinion on what went wrong and what needs to go right for the program to rise again.

In attempt to provide our assessment of the 2005 season, TheWolverine.com will be taking stock over the next two weeks of each position group on the team and the performance of this year's coaching staff. Today we will start with the wide receivers and tight ends.

The Highlights

In the absence of All-American Braylon Edwards, many wondered how the passes would be distributed and would there be someone quarterback Chad Henne could go to in the clutch. While the second question can be debated, senior Jason Avant emerged as a consistent threat for Henne and the offense, and showed he's more than just a possession receiver, making a number of big catches, including eight touchdown grabs.

Freshman Mario Manningham would also emerge during the season, providing the Wolverines a deep threat that had been lacking in the first half of the season. His big-play ability almost single-handedly toppled Penn State, while he also turned momentum in Michigan's favor against Michigan State and gave the Wolverines a chance against Wisconsin and Nebraska with big touchdown receptions.

During the second half of the season, freshman Antonio Bass and redshirt junior Steve Breaston also played a significant role in the offense, turning some of their God-given abilities into big-play potential for the Maize and Blue. Bass lined up at quarterback, receiver and tailback, offering a glimpse of what could be a very bright future.

At tight end, junior Tyler Ecker was a target Henne could go to, especially in the midst of a number of injuries that prevented All-American candidate Tim Massaquoi from having an All-American season.

The Lowlights

It started in the first game of the year when sophomore Adrian Arrington broke his ankle, ending his season. Injuries were not kind to the Wolverines. Massaquoi broke his wrist and missed the Notre Dame game. He did not fully recover until late in the year and a knee injury against Ohio State ended his U-M career.

For all the success Michigan's rookie wideouts had, Manningham and Bass ran a few routes wrong and dropped passes. In the Alamo Bowl loss, a key third-down conversion was dropped by Manningham because he short-armed the pass. That was a key mistake at a very costly moment.

Many did not think Avant would dominate the stat book because Breaston would split receptions with him, but either because of injury or other circumstances, Breaston experienced a terribly poor first half of the season. He was supposed to become the deep threat, filling Edwards' void, but key drops against Notre Dame put any such talk on hold. Essentially, Breaston, either through his own fault or that of the coaches, did not factor often enough into the offense, putting to waste an extremely skilled offensive talent.

Michigan's tight ends failed to have the kind of success both players and coaches have been talking about for years. Following Bennie Joppru's 53-catch, five-touchdown performance in 2002, many expected a tight end boon in production. Instead this year, three tight ends - Ecker, Massaquoi and Mike Massey - combined for just 40 receptions for 422 yards and four touchdowns. The idea of stretching the field and exploiting matchups with U-M's athletic tight ends never materialized.

The Grades

John Borton: "Michigan's wideouts and tight ends featured some excellent talent, but a variety of circumstances led to the positions not maxing out this year. The Wolverines featured no deep threat early, until Mario Manningham started moving into the role, and that fact -- combined with an unreliable run game -- put pressure on the short-to-intermediate routes. Jason Avant still enjoyed a big year, and Steve Breaston contributed excellent moments (Iowa), but can't find a true niche among receivers.

"At tight end, Tim Massaquoi's 'incomplete' left a huge hole, one that Tyler Ecker and Mike Massey didn't completely fill." Grade: B-

Chris Balas: "Inconsistent might be the best word to describe the receivers. All had big moments, but even the most consistent - Jason Avant, who you'll never hear a bad word about here -- dropped a couple big ones (most notably a third down pass at Wisconsin and a key fumble in the Alamo Bowl). Steve Breaston could have been a difference maker in the Notre Dame game, but missed a few opportunities. It was a shame he didn't get more than two touches beyond special teams against Nebraska given he seemed healthy and ready.

"Mario Manningham will be a star when he becomes a better blocker, something that seemed to be lacking in the group as a whole this year. There's not an abundance of speed in the backfield as it is, meaning they'll need more from the group to spring some bigger runs in 2006 (something that's also been absent in the last few years). And while Antonio Bass is still learning the position, it would have been nice to have seen a few more creative ways to get the ball in his hands. He seems to have special ability.

"The tight ends were hindered by Tim Massaquoi's injury, but most expected more from the group this year. Tyler Ecker needs to step it up with his blocking to be the kind of player they need him to be
next year." Grade: C+

Michael Spath: "Even with Avant's play, this unit fell below expectations. Every game, in matchups, I wrote about how no one could keep up with their talent, but every game an opponent - that supposedly featured a weak secondary - found a way to keep them under wraps. The under-utilization of Breaston, Manningham and Bass is a shame. Somehow, someway, these three should have seen the ball a combined 15-18 times a game. Instead they averaged a total of only eight touches per contest. Michigan's inability to find a suitable replacement for Braylon Edwards on the deep pass also really hurt." Grade: B-

Josh Helmholdt: "The tight end portion of this group was the most disappointing. Michigan had never returned so much experience in its two starting tight ends, and yet they combined for only 32 catches and two touchdowns? As for the wide receivers,
Jason Avant revives this squad. He had a Marquise Walker-type senior year, but it's too bad he's destined for a Marquise Walker-type pro career too. Arrington's injury hurt more than we are aware of. There was a hesitancy to stretch the field and, even when Manningham completed some heroics, a hesitancy for him to get too involved in the offense. Breaston had only 26 catches for 291 yards and that is unacceptable." Grade: C

Matt Pargoff: "Both positions suffered major setbacks as a result of injuries with Tim Massaquoi's play being extremely limited due to a broken hand and Adrian Arrington missing the season with a broken ankle. Steve Breaston, expected to break out this season with the loss of Braylon Edwards, remained a better returnman than a pure receiver. The result was a lack of a consistent deep threat on the offense early in the season.

"The blocking wasn't great from either unit, but the area of greatest concern revolves around usage, with both tight ends and wide receivers catching most passes near the boundary with very little room to run.

"On the positive side, Jason Avant had a very good senior season, breaking the 1,000-yard mark, and pulling in eight touchdowns. Furthermore, Michigan fans got a peak at the future, with two true freshman making major contributions. The future is bright at both positions, but the players need the opportunities to catch the ball on the run in space to truly be successful." Grade: C+




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