ANN ARBOR, Mich. — When Ronnie Bell went down to injury last season, he put a dent in Michigan’s entire offensive operation.
The Wolverines’ No. 1 receiving option was no longer available, and it erased a major down-field threat.
And while Jim Harbaugh’s team had a bunch of receivers eager to pick up the slack, it took Michigan eight games into its schedule to throw for 300 yards. That would explain why the team’s top receiver, Cornelius Johnson, only finished the season with 39 catches for 620 yards and three touchdowns.
Johnson, playing as a junior, had some productive games—like the three-catch, 117-yard performance against Northern Illinois, and his five-catch, 108-yard game against Indiana. But in some of the biggest games of the season — the wins over Ohio State and Iowa, and the College Football Playoff game against Georgia — his stat line suffered. Two catches for 48 yards against the Buckeyes. One catch for 15 yards in the Big Ten title game. And two catches for 18 yards in the Orange Bowl.
“Some of those teams identified him as the No. 1 guy,” receiver coach Ron Bellamy said. “So, what do you do with the No. 1 guy? You try to take him out of the game plan by doubling him.”
Bellamy explained that teams would shift their coverage to focus on Johnson, or make sure they matched their top defensive back up with him.
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And it makes sense. Johnson had effectively separated himself as Michigan’s top receiver — averaging 15.6 yards per catch — with Bell out, and he was still learning how to navigate big-time college football with high-level opponents trying to guard him.
“That’s it. Very good question,” Johnson said Friday. “I’m definitely excited for the opportunity to go out there and be on the same field as Ronnie (and the other receivers, as well), because the thing about it is — once we get each other going, it opens up the door (and other opportunities) for other players.”
With Bell back practicing and, by all accounts, 100 percent again, the Wolverines now have two established, primary threats to throw the ball to this fall. Before tearing his ACL, Bell emerged as a key secondary receiving target for Michigan, catching 48 passes for 758 yards in 2019 and 26 passes for 401 yards in the shortened 2020 season.
He even had a 76-yard touchdown catch in the opener last year, moments before suffering the injury while being tackled on a punt return.
“With Ronnie in the mix, it’s good to have weapons all over the offense,” Johnson said. “Using those weapons, I feel like it’s just great for the entire program.”
That could be the case. Opposing teams will need to focus on Bell again, perhaps leaving the second-best defensive back to Johnson. The number of double-teams could be fewer, too, allowing the 6-foot-3, 208-pound Connecticut native to make more contested catches.
“He uses his body really well when he’s getting open,” said Bell, who calls it “exciting” to integrate back into the Michigan offense. “And in awkward situations with a DB. I feel like those are two things that separate him.
“He is very explosive, though.”
Johnson appears primed for what is to come, too. Asked last week about offseason improvements, he hinted at knowing “what to expect more” and being in sync with the quarterback, where the starter remains unclear.
“I’m looking forward to this fall, being there for my teammates, and making sure I’m contributing, too,” Johnson said.
With Bell back in the fold, his contribution could be greater than ever.
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