New Michigan offensive line coach Ed Warinner is in his first spring with the school.
Donovan Peoples-Jones didn’t hear it. He has no reaction to it.
He just wants to do his job.
“We’ve got to get open for our quarterback,” Michigan’s now sophomore receiver from Cass Tech said. “I’ve got to be open.”
Earlier this month, speaking on his podcast, head coach Jim Harbaugh called Peoples-Jones the team’s best receiver through the early stages of spring practice. A year ago at this time, that distinction belonged to classmate Tarik Black.
Black was Michigan’s leading receiver until a foot injury cost him the final nine games of 2017. He’s back now, but so is Peoples-Jones.
He’s not the same youngster who enrolled early before spending his first spring almost exclusively in the slot because of how difficult it was for him to beat jams at the line and get open.
He’s not the same player who started out last season with a ton of energy, but not as much polish. He improved each week as much as anyone last season and now has earned an early distinction from Harbaugh.
Peoples-Jones didn’t hear it. It doesn’t mean much to him. He just wants to be better than he was.
“It’s just everything. Getting used to the play speed, everything that comes with college football, that’s something that every player has to get used to,” Peoples-Jones added. “I’m just trying to get me better. And the rest of the receivers, too.
“I’m trying to get better every time I’m out there. Every time I watch myself on film, just pick at something and try to perfect that.”
Always a stellar athlete, Peoples-Jones spent the bulk of 2017 learning to be a college wide receiver on the fly. His role increased once Black went down and he was forced to play with three different starting quarterbacks inside Michigan’s dysfunctional passing offense.
Still, he finished the year with 22 catches for 277 yards. Those aren’t record-breaking numbers, but they weren’t too bad for a first-year player.
Only four Michigan true freshmen (Greg McMurtry, Mario Manningham, Martavious Odoms and Roy Roundtree) finished their first year on campus with more than 22 receptions. Peoples-Jones’ journey put him alongside elite company.
But now, things have to improve.
He’s still young. He turned 19 in February. But in some ways, he’s not young.
“It’s both,” he says. “I feel like I’m young because I am young. But I feel older because of that experience I was blessed to be in last year.
“I’m trying to be a teammate. The best teammate I can be and the best player on the field I can be.”
Peoples-Jones and the rest of Michigan’s receivers, staying with Harbaugh’s offseason theme of change, are working with new coaches this spring.
Former Florida coach Jim McElwain, who heavily recruited Peoples-Jones out of high school, is now the team’s wide receivers coach. Roundtree, a former Michigan standout himself, is back on campus as a graduate assistant.
The passing game last season was rough, and it wasn’t one person’s fault. The quarterbacks missed throws, the offensive line missed blocks and the wide receivers struggled to get open.
Peoples-Jones wasn’t innocent in this area, though he did make strides from the start of the year to the close of it. A year ago he was on campus, head spinning as a true freshman.
He’s a year older now. The polish is catching up.
He hopes his game will follow.
“Anything that could cause a disadvantage in my game,” he says. “Anything I can do to better myself, I look at it and try to get better at it.”
There’s more to the story here, too, of course: “We didn’t have a good season last year. No one wants to be 8-5 (again). If something like that happens, we’ve got to kick-start things.”
Contact Nick Baumgardner: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @nickbaumgardner.
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