Michigan Wolverines football lost arguably its best offensive player in junior wide receiver and team captain Ronnie Bell, who was ruled out for the season with a knee injury he suffered during U-M’s 47-14 win over Western Michigan.
Bell’s teammates, first and foremost, feel sadness that he won’t get to be out there with them.
“That’s a tough thing, because you see how hard he works, you see the effort he puts in every day,” second-year freshman wide receiver A.J. Henning said Monday. “He’s our captain; he’s like the heart and soul of the wide receiver room. Seeing him go down, it’s tough.”
There’s also an added responsibility to raise their play now that Bell — who led the club in receiving each of the last two seasons and got off to a great start (76-yard touchdown reception, 31-yard punt return) in the opener — is out.
The ‘deep’ wide receiver room that head coach Jim Harbaugh and others spoke so highly of in the preseason will now be put to the test.
“For him to go down, everybody has to step up,” Henning explained. “That’s a major loss. But I think it’s going to be everybody stepping up and doing their job and playing a part to pick it up.”
It’ll be a collective effort to replace Bell, Henning said. And part of the motivation for the other wideouts to emerge to the forefront comes from just how much Bell means to the team.
“We’re all going to do our job in stepping up and filling that role, all the receivers and everybody on the offense, because everyone wants to do it for him,” Henning said. “That’s the kind of guy he is — he’s a captain on this team, he’s really well respected on this team and you just hate to see that for him.”
Part of that includes taking some of what Bell has taught them — both verbally and with his actions — and implementing that into what they do during games.
“He’s fearless in everything he does,” Henning said. “Whenever he takes the field, he wants to dominate in all phases of the game — whether it’s running, catching, run blocking on the perimeter, just everything. That’s something that everybody takes away and respects so much about him, because he’s just a fearless competitor.”
Henning, in particular, has a big opportunity. In the opener alone, he showed his ability to create big plays, having taken an end-around 74 yards to pay dirt.
“It was great,” he said of his score. “That play, we repped it all week — it was great all week. I just defined that play, going back and looking at it, it was all about effort — effort and execution. Everybody did their job, and they made my job a lot easier.”
The 2019 Gatorade Player of the Year in the state of Illinois also added one catch for 11 yards.
On top of potentially earning more snaps on offense, Henning may eventually step into Bell’s role as the team’s punt returner. Redshirt freshman defensive back Caden Kolesar was back deep following Bell’s departure from the game, but he’s also the Wolverines’ best rusher on punts, per Harbaugh.
Ideally, Henning would be the next punt returner up, but he has to prove he can be sure-handed — not an easy thing to do — in practice.
“It’s really difficult to field it. I’ve been working on it. It’s pretty difficult, but if you work at it, you’ll keep getting better,” he said.
“We’ll see this week what the plan is for punt return. But I’m just ready in all phases, whenever I can help the team.”
• This weekend against Washington, Michigan will be going up against former Wolverine wide receiver Giles Jackson, who transferred to play for the Huskies this offseason. However, that’s not as big of a storyline for Henning — who shared a position room with Jackson last season — and Co. as it may be for the media and fans.
“We look at it as a faceless opponent, so not really going to pay too much mind,” Henning noted. “Off the field, there’s a relationship there, and he was here, but on the field it’s different.”
• The Wolverines’ wide receivers were lauded by Harbaugh for their downfield blocking against WMU, and that has been an emphasis in the position room this year.
“That’s just the attitude of the room. It’s instilled in us — Coach says he wants us to dominate in all phases of the game, so if you can’t get involved with catching the ball, it’s putting our face down and having to block somebody,” Henning said. “If it’s on the perimeter, if it’s digging out a linebacker, anything — we take great pride in blocking on the outside.:
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