ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Three games into his college career and Donovan Peoples-Jones has already made a comeback.
The freshman from Detroit caught his first 2 passes, including turning a wide receiver screen into a 37-yard gain in the second quarter, and then returned a punt 79 yards for Michigan’s first touchdown in a 29-13 win against Air Force on Saturday at Michigan Stadium.
Peoples-Jones was replaced by Grant Perry as punt returner last week in the second half against Cincinnati after having a couple of communication missteps. Coach Jim Harbaugh said Peoples-Jones would be back in that role, and Peoples-Jones backed up his coach’s confidence.
— Michigan On BTN (@MichiganOnBTN) September 16, 2017
Peoples-Jones took a few steps back to field a 53-yard punt from Air Force’s Charlie Scott. When he caught the ball, there was no defender within 10 yards of him. Peoples-Jones shrugged off an attempt by Scott to push him out of bounds and completed the return.
“The return team did a great job of blocking, and they made my job very easy,” Peoples-Jones said. “It just opened up like the Red Sea. They did a great job of not clipping. I know I changed the field a couple of different times and they did a great job of blocking and not holding. They made my job pretty easy.”
There we go Peoples-Jones, earn that scholarship and wake all of Ann Arbor up. #FreshmanBaller
— Braylon Edwards (@OfficialBraylon) September 16, 2017
Peoples-Jones returned a second punt for 25 yards when Scott again out-kicked his coverage. Peoples-Jones delivered another first on Saturday: He called for two fair catches. He had shown some reckless aggression in the first two games of the season. Peoples-Jones showed better judgment against Air Force.
While fellow freshman Tarik Black had a team-high 5 catches for 55 yards, giving him 11 receptions on the season, Peoples-Jones and quarterback Wilton Speight had failed to connect in the passing game until Saturday. Some of that was on Speight, who had been high on a couple of passes intended for Peoples-Jones. Part of it is that people forget Peoples-Jones is a freshman. He might have been rated the top wide receiver in the 2017 recruiting class, but that means nothing when the games begin.
“I think you saw Donovan kind of settle in today and realize what he’s truly capable of,” Speight said. “Catching passes, making people miss, catching a punt return and taking is 70-something yards. Those are the strides and the steps that we need to take. Everyone needs to take, and we are. Heading into Week 4, I think the ball will be rolling in the right direction.”
Week 4 means a road trip to Purdue for the No. 7-ranked Wolverines. The Boilermakers are 2-1 after a 35-3 thrashing of Missouri on Saturday. Their loss came against No. 14 Louisville.
Peoples-Jones’ role is evolving. Harbaugh said there has been thought of using him as a kickoff returner. Michigan wants to put the ball in his hands.
“We’re giving a lot of thought of using Donovan in a lot of ways,” Harbaugh said. “You see him make a play. Remember, this is his third game. His third game as a college football player. What an outstanding thing for 15 or so guys who are playing as true freshmen. That’s a testament to their ability, their talent and their effort.
“It’s great to see him in there. I feel like great things are going to happen for Donovan Peoples-Jones.”