UM offensive coordinator Thomas Brown assessed where UM stands at running back and tight end in this post Monday. Today, he shares his thoughts on the receivers:
Competition here is intense, with 10 players on scholarship – including four freshmen and redshirt freshman Evidence Njoku, who’s working his way back from October knee surgery.
Brown said Ahmmon Richards’ diminished production last season was entirely the byproduct of assorted injuries (hamstring, knee injury before the ACC championship game) and no fault of Richards’.
Richards went from 49 catches for 934 yards in 13 games as a freshman to 24 catches for 439 yards in seven games as a sophomore.
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“It was all him not being healthy enough,” Brown said. “He’s a fantastic player. When he is on, good luck covering him. He has been really good this summer. We’re excited seeing him at 100 percent.”
Jeff Thomas, who’s trying to nail down the slot receiver job, should emerge as UM’s best deep ball option after flashing his considerable speed as a freshman. It would be surprising if he’s not on the field a lot.
“He is the quickest guy if not one of the quickest guys on the entire team,” Brown said. “Jeff is super dynamic. He can score from anywhere on the field. He has made tremendous strides maturing and taking a leadership by example” role.
We saw last year how lethal Thomas can be with deep passes. But UM this spring made better use of Thomas on crossing patterns in the middle of the field, and Thomas showed an ability to get open and the elite speed to get yards after catch.
Braxton Berrios said in December that Thomas could be even better if he studied the game more, and coaches have pushed Thomas, on the field, “to do what’s right all the time – and give great effort all time.”
Progress appears to have been made in that area. Thomas could be one of the nation’s best deep threats if he stays on course.
Mike Harley, who’s also working in the slot, “continues to be who he’s been,” Brown said. “He works his butt off and he’s one of the most consistent guys in that room. In our room, blocking is a big part of it. He does a great job of that and trying to be a leader, speaking up and motivating guys.”
So if Richards starts, as expected, and Thomas starts in the slot (my expectation), who starts at the third receiver job when UM opens in three-receiver formations?
Brown said he has a good idea but declined to say.
One strong option is Lawrence Cager.
“With Lawrence, it’s consistency,” Brown said. “When he wants to show up, and plays as big as he is, he is a dominating force. Other times he can disappear because he doesn’t play like himself. He was really good this spring, been even better in the summer.”
Now two years removed from knee surgery, Cager had his best game of 2017 in the finale against Wisconsin in the Orange Bowl (four catches for 76 yards and a touchdown). The big challenge with the coaching staff has been getting him to play to his 6-5 frame and maximize that advantage against smaller cornerbacks.
Freshman Brian Hightower, who impressed everyone in the spring, also has emerged as a legitimate challenger for a starting job.
“I feel really good about him,” Brown said. “He came in extremely focused, did a great job from a receiving standpoint and from blocking standpoint. He’s one of our more consistent guys.”
What’s the skill with Hightower that will make him an excellent receiver at UM?
“His ball skills and body position, being able to be a big body receiver against small defenders and even bigger defenders,” Brown said. “His size and strength combo gives him a chance” to catch every ball near him.
Daquris Wiggins, the other freshman receiver who participated in spring ball, “is a super smooth fluid athlete. We are trying to bulk him up some. He’s a good route runner.”
Brown has been able to watch Mark Pope and Marquez Ezzard, who enrolled this summer.
“Pope can fly; even watching him run this morning, he has great acceleration,” Brown said in a phone conversation last week. “You see how well he gets open. Very fluid athlete; great ball skills. We will see how fast he picks the system up.”
As for Ezzard, “he has made great progress,” Brown said. “He was a deer in the headlights at first, but he’s figuring out how to get adjusted. He’s a physical receiver, pretty good route runner.”
As for Njoku, “he looks healthy,” Brown said. “I am looking for him to bounce back. He looks really good running around. He will be a different player than his brother [Cleveland Brown and former UM tight end David Njoku]. David grew rapidly into a very skilled tight end. Evidence might be taller.”
David is listed at 6-4, Evidence at 6-6.
As for Darrell Langham, his clutch catches against FSU and Georgia Tech suggested he might have warranted more snaps.
But Langham last year allowed several balls in his area to be batted away by smaller defensive backs, resulting in interceptions. UM believes he has gotten quicker and improved at positioning against defenders, but it’s difficult to envision his snaps skyrocketing from a dozen to a ton more than that. But he figures to get playing time off last year’s improvement.
With the aforementioned 10 receivers, “we can rotate guys more,” Brown said. “I would be surprised if these [freshmen] receivers don’t help us right away.”