By: Will Burchfield
Donovan Peoples-Jones called his shot.
Talking on the phone Friday night with his former high school teammate and Ohio State running back Mike Weber, Peoples-Jones said he was going to return a punt for a touchdown in Saturday’s game versus Air Force.
Early in the second half, the freshman delivered.
Peoples-Jones’ weaving 79-yard touchdown return put Michigan up 16-6 and inspirited a frustrated crowd at the Big House in the Wolverines’ 29-13 win.
“That’s my guy,” Peoples-Jones said of Weber, who graduated one year before him from Detroit’s Cass Tech. “We grew up together. But at the end of the day, I’m playing for Michigan and doing what’s best for my team.”
Peoples-Jones was the No. 1 recruit in Michigan last year, and he proved why on Saturday. Along with his contributions on special teams — he returned another punt for 25 yards later in the game — he provided the biggest play on offense, a 37-yard catch and run that set up a Michigan field goal early in the second quarter.
Quarterback Wilton Speight almost has to pinch himself when he watches the 18-year-old do his thing.
“It’s pretty cool that he was playing high-school football last year. We went down to Dallas, it was a big-time venue, and then it’s two in a row in the Big House. I think you saw Donovan kind of settle in a little bit today and realize what he’s truly capable of with catching passes, making people miss, catching the punt return and taking it 70-something yards,” Speight said. “Those are the strides and the steps that we need to take.”
Prior to Saturday, Peoples-Jones had yet to really make a mark on Michigan’s season. Fellow freshman receiver Tarik Black has been stealing the show in the passing game and Peoples-Jones actually lost his job as punt-returner last week after struggling to field a few balls in traffic.
Jim Harbaugh made it clear Peoples-Jones would get another chance, and the coaching staff encouraged him to stay aggressive.
“They just told me every opportunity that I get, just make the most of it,” Peoples-Jones said.
He said he felt “real comfortable” fielding punts on Saturday.
What did he see on his touchdown?
“It just opened up like the red sea. My punt-return team did a great job of not clipping. I know I changed the field a couple a different times, and they did a great job of blocking, not holding, and just made my job very easy,” said Peoples-Jones.
Harbaugh said Peoples-Jones’ explosiveness as a punt-returner might earn him a job returning kickoffs, too. With that kind of speed, why not?
“We’re giving a lot of thought to using Donovan in a lot of ways. Remember, it’s his third game as a collegiate football player,” Harbaugh said. “What an outstanding thing for the 15 or so guys that are playing as true freshman. It’s a testament to their ability, their talent and their effort.
“But I think you’re going to see him grow, grow, grow. He’s been plus, plus, plus. Great to see his mettle today, and I feel like great things will happen for Donovan Peoples-Jones.”
The night before Peoples-Jones made his college decision last winter, Harbaugh was so nervous he could hardly sleep. Peoples-Jones was the big fish, a consensus five-star recruit and the top player on Harbaugh’s wish list.
When he signed with Michigan, Harbaugh was over the moon. He knew there were special days ahead.
Saturday was only the first.
“It was good to see Donovan got us going. Made the big play offensively, made the big play special-teams wise. Great to see him be a factor in the third game of his freshman year,” Harbaugh said. “Like Tarik has done, they’re huge factors in where we are, 3-0.”
Peoples-Jones, soft-spoken and somewhat shy, said, “I’m just blessed to come out here and be a contributor.”